I’ve shared in previous posts (here and here) thoughts from my PhD candidacy exam. In this post, I share my thoughts on being methodological when it comes to doing audience studies. As with the other posts, this essay was originally written in 2007.

1. What does being methodological mean?

To paraphrase myself from an earlier writing on this topic, a methodology is not a recipe for how to cook, but an entire approach to cooking.  One may like to make desserts and specialize in the production of such dishes; one’s approach or outlook on how to make a dessert would be determined by how one learned to cook.  Are you a TexMex griller?  A French haute-cuisine connoisseur?  An assembly-line preparer at Applebee’s?  Each different way of thinking about how to cook will influence how you prepare dessert.  Your approach will influence what recipes you think are proper and how you proceed in preparing the dish. 

In scientific and scholarly pursuits, we are each a chef who has been trained to view our phenomenon of interest in a certain way – whether or not the training was something we willingly selected.  Each researcher, regardless the terrain of study, can be seen as a member and thus representation of a particular discourse community that has formed around a particular phenomenon.  Discourse communities are as Foucault described them: a discourse is the ways of speaking about the phenomenon that limit how we can come to know that phenomenon.  A discourse forms around ontological and epistemological tenets that form the doctrine of how that phenomenon is believed to exist, and how someone can come to know more about its existence.  The community consists of those individuals who ascribe to those beliefs.  When it comes to conducting research, each researcher is driven to understand the reality of the phenomenon based on their adherence to the tenets of their particular discourse community.  One community may see human beings as fundamentally having freewill, and this belief will shape how that community’s members will research human beings as agents of their own lives.  Another community may hold dear the concepts of biological determinism, and this adherence will sway them into neurological or genetic explanations for humans’ thoughts, feelings and actions.

Methodology is then the way in which the doctrines of the discourse community are translated into the organized procedures for conducting research on a phenomenon of interest.  Because the doctrines will shape how the researcher believes knowledge can be obtained about a phenomenon, the methods chosen to learn more about the phenomenon will also have some correspondence to the tenets of the community.  If you were to believe humans’ behaviors toward each other are biologically determined by neural synapses firings, then you would conduct lab experiments that allow you to monitor brain activity during periods of interpersonal communication.  You would not go out and observe two individuals talking at a café because you cannot measure their neurophysiology.  The methods chosen for a research study are both cued and constrained by the philosophical principles of the metatheory to which your discourse community, and thus your self, have ascribed.  You may have some leeway in the exact type of study conducted – the research questions, the design, the sample, the variables, et cetera – but there is an undercurrent of assumptions inherent to your choices that reflect the methodology prescribed and endorsed by your discourse community.  You have agency to do as you wish, but there are still the community’s structural features to take into consideration.

To be methodological then is to design, conduct, and analyze a research project in ways that are philosophically governed by the metatheory to which you adhere.  Many times a researcher will not clearly state their philosophical stance on the phenomenon being studied.  In these cases, the methodology is implicit.  The actual mechanics of the study would have to be analyzed for the underlying assumptions, with a case to be made as to how these assumptions demonstrate the metatheory of the discourse community the researcher is working out of.  However, in these cases, I would personally be hard pressed to deem such a researcher as being methodological. 

To truly be methodological, the researcher needs to be explicit in showing how the study came to be designed the way it did – to show the thought processes that went into the designing, conducting and analyzing of the study – to clarify how it connects to their metatheoretical position(s).  Clearly remarking on the mechanics and processes through which the research study came to be reduces any confusion as to how the results were gathered and constructed.  Being explicit lets other researchers and scholars know that the study was conducted with due consideration and forethought as to its goals and potential value.  Being explicit is also a humbling experience, as it forces the researcher to realize and admit what are the strengths and weaknesses of his or her epistemological and methodological approach.  Being explicit opens the possibility for various discourse communities to recognize one another’s work and to engage in discussion as to what the results provide for in terms of their own epistemological stances.  By deconstructing how the research study was constructed, a methodological researcher facilitates understanding for what could be done better or different next time from a variety of methodological approaches. 

Thus, to be truly methodological is to be consciously, judiciously to the point of exhaustion, considering and discussing what led one to conduct the research on a particular phenomenon in the way it was done.  To be aware that there are other ways to do such research, but that this particular path was chosen for X and Y and Z reasons.  To be critical not only of the results “received” in the study, but the process through which the results came to be.  To be methodological is to realize what are the opportunities and limitations put upon your research and “results” by the ways you think about the world – and to hopefully realize that your approach is only one of many possibilities, each with their own assumptions and beliefs, opportunities and limitations.

2. How do you see Brenda Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology as methodological?

In order to be a methodology, that one could then take up and become methodological with, a discourse community needs to have some fundamental ontological and epistemological assumptions about reality and how knowledge can be acquired; to be a unique discourse community these assumptions should address some gap, lacking, or omission in how other discourse communities have approached the phenomenon of interest.  Dervin’s Sense-Making sets itself up as such an approach with several of its metatheoretical tenets that serve to cue and constrain the ways in which research can be conducted under the aegis of Sense-Making.  In the following paragraphs, I will outline some of the more distinctive tenets that have been propositioned and how they inform the Sense-Making Methodology. 

Sense-Making proposes and thus understands human beings to be fluid entities.  Other communication models and studies try to encapsulate humans into boxes of known characteristics, such as demographics and psychological traits, which see this human as being the same no matter the time of day or place of study.  The psychological traits measured in a lab experiment that show connections between sensation-seeking and media violence exposure are presumed to be consistent predictors for increases in aggression, whether that person is in that lab watching a movie clip or at home with friends watching that same movie.  The context of the exposure – the details of the situation of where time and space intersect – are thought to be not as determinant of violent media behavior as is the person’s general tendency to desire adrenalin rushes.  As the human moves through time and space, these consistent traits are thought to be a heavy burden, influencing their behaviors all along the way.

However, Sense-Making conceptualizes humans as having the possibility to be static, but also the capacity to be creative and chaotic.  A human may indeed engage in the same behavior repeatedly, across time and space, if that behavior is a habit or embodied habitus, something rote and internalized and automatic but unchallenged because it has never hurt that person in the past to any great extent.  However, a human may surprise an observer by not engaging in this habit and doing something creative or adaptive, based on the circumstances of that particular time-space intersect.  The observer may not be able to predict when, where, how, and why this sudden departure from habit may occur – unless the observer actively engages in dialogue with the human and asks how that human is making sense out of the situation. 

Thus, another interwoven tenet in Sense-Making, coming from phenomenological philosophies, is seeing human beings as sense-making beings.  Humans are constantly trying to make sense of the world around them and them selves in order to move through life – to understand what is happening, why, how, and to use this information to make decisions, to move forward, to seek out support, and so on.  Humans are not simply programmed automatons, determined by demographic, psychological or even sociocultural traits.  While these traits, often imposed upon them by social structures, may cue and constrain the ways in which the human can make sense of the world, humans still have the cognitive ability, and indeed imperative, to struggle with and make sense of the multitude of stimuli and information that saturates the world in which they live.  This impetus to make sense means there may be situations that are interpreted as allowing the person to engage in the more rote habits of behaviors.  But there are also times when aspects of the situation prompt the sense-making human to stir from this automatic state and more actively engage with the situation to determine the best course of action.  Perhaps there is some problem – a struggle, confusion or muddling – that they have never had to face before.  Sense-Making mandates investigating those situations when rote behavior is being engaged and comparing them to/against/with those situations when creative behavior is being utilized.  In both types of situations, the goal is to understand how the person’s process of making sense of the situation led them to engage in either type of behavior.

Thus, methodologically speaking, Sense-Making mandates that the study of a human being’s engagings with a phenomenon be considered from the perspective of a situation.  By looking at a particular time-space intersect, the human being can discuss the processes or hows of sense-making that s/he was engaging in for the purposes of determining how to act/react/counteract in that situation.  Focusing on general tendencies may only reveal the average whats that occurred – what average amount of television did you watch? what do you usually think about censorship? what is your reason for choosing to watch network nightly news?  Focusing on these whats prevents understanding the hows of the sense-making, decision-making and evaluating processes that may prove to be more informative to any discussion of whys.  On a similar note, focusing on hypotheticals or abstractions from reality, such as lab experiments, removes the human from their lives as understood by them and presents them with a task they may have no prior knowledge of, which would hinder applying it to their normal sense-making procedures, or interest in, which may reduce any possibility of creative sense-making behaviors.  That is not to say that there can be no Sense-Making experiment; only that such application of that method must be done with Sense-Making Methodology’s perspective on the situated sense-making human being.

Another important and highly interwoven component of Sense-Making is the view of power as an influence on the sense-making human being.  This tenet is influenced by the work of critical scholars who theorize on the overarching influence of social structures and their ideologies in shaping the human being.  Without some acknowledgement to the cuing and constraining ability for social structures, the sense-making human being would be too highly voluntaristic and agentic, in complete control of all his or her actions, with the problems of chaotic plurality and unpredictability that follow.  Instead, Sense-Making recognizes that there are sociocultural structures that exist and have a material presence in the reality of the human.  However, instead of taking the rather deterministic and pessimistic stance of classic critical scholarship, Sense-Making conceptualizes this sense-making human as being able to negotiate and struggle with these overarching influences as s/he moves through life.  Just as situating the discussion of a phenomenon can illuminate those times of rote versus creative behavior, humans can discuss/theorize/complain about the ways in which they see power entering their lives.  

As theorists for their own lives, Sense-Making Methodology interviews provide space for the person to discuss how they see power and the processes they engage in that confirm or resist such power.  But more than that, the actual structure of a Sense-Making study requires the researcher to consider these power issues in how humans are studied.  In the case of an interview, the methodological researcher is aware of how powerful his or her position is in relation to the interviewee – the interviewer is often labeled as the authority or the expert, and thus imbued with daunting power.  The mandate is to remove as much as possible any imposition of the interviewer on the interviewee – to ask short but precise questions to prompt the interviewee to start a dialogue with his or her own theories, interpretations, and processes of his or her sense-making.  This distancing continues into the analysis phase, where the researcher is enjoined to recognize that his or her interpretations of the interviewee’s interpretations are not necessarily the interpretations that matter the most.  In other words, the interviewer is directed to empower the interviewee by having the interviewee deliberate over his or her sense-making, and to use these deliberations as given with as minimal interpretation by the researcher as possible.

This reduction of the presence of the interviewer is guided by another of Sense-Making’s tenets, as mentioned before: the focus on hows over whats.  Hows represent the processes by which sense-making enables the human to engage with and move through the situation.  In times when the human sees some gap or struggle or problem on the road of life that must be dealt with, the Sense-Making researcher is interested not simply in what was done (ex. what media did you use to make yourself feel better?) but also how this “what” was done (ex. how did using this particular media make you feel better?).  The whats being dealt with can vary incredibly between situations, but the hows of dealing with those whats can provide insight into that human’s sense-making processes that may be built on more universal experiencings. 

In order to understand the hows, Sense-Making calls for a focus on the verbs a person uses rather than the nouns.  Verbs represent actions, the internal and external behaviors a human engages in to make sense of and move through a situation.  Verbs are the descriptions of the processes, whereas nouns are the labels of the components of the situation – they are the applied interpretations or inferences made to encapsulate an abstract and make it knowable to others.  But because they do encapsulate what may be the abstraction of a sense-making process, this nouning can carry with it tremendous power; once an animal is labeled a lion by an expert, it is hard for a layperson to call it a lamb.  A methodological Sense-Making researcher would be aware of this potential problem and would do their best to avoid putting nouning questions into their interviews in order to avoid labeling, summarizing, or interpreting some action of the sense-making human that the individual does not see as such.  In other words, this researcher is not to put the sense-making human’s words in other words. 

All of this activity by the researcher is to foster a more neutral space in which the sense-making human can engage with his or her own interpretive activities as s/he works through just how and why s/he did what s/he did in that situation.  Because a human is seen as having the ability and imperative to make sense, to form an understanding of the world, it is the process of this construction and all that went into it that is the formal data gathered and constructed in a Sense-Making research study.  This interpretive activity is a dialogic surround prompted by the verbing questions the researcher asks of the person.  The person is asked to engage with how s/he felt and thought when struggling or coping with the road through that situation.  But these more concrete whats are paired with considerations for how s/he was helped or hindered in moving down the road, how power and agency were seen as involved – how the bridge over the gap of this problem was constructed to assist in moving through the time and space of that situation. 

In order to be methodological when applying all these tenets of Sense-Making, the researcher must consider a) the human being across time-space b) that may sometimes act out of habit but other times out of creativity, c) who has the capacity to theorize and interpret his or her own actions, d) such that the researcher must provide the space for the person to self-dialogue about his or her own sense-making processes d) that reside on potentially more universal verbings, e) all of which should be done in a more power equitable and neutral space with a researcher who only prompts f) a dialogic surround of the sense-maker’s interpretation of the phenomenon being studied.  A methodological Sense-Making researcher would then be explicit in how each of these aspects influenced the design, conduct and analysis of the research study.

3. What other approaches to conducting reception and audience/user studies do you consider to be at least in part methodological? Why?

As I outlined above, I do feel that for a researcher to be truly methodological, s/he should be explicit in their study as to how their metatheoretical considerations played a role in shaping the design, conduct and analysis of that study.  However, when the question is focused not on particular studies but on entire research approaches that may or may not be a single, unitary discourse community, my argument for being “truly” methodological falters.  There may be a number of researchers or, for a smaller unit of analysis, a number of research studies that can be highlighted as coming from a particular discourse community and being truly methodological.  Then again, there may be just as many, if not more, that could be analyzed for the implicit methodological assumptions that underline the research study.  Thus, in the case of considering an entire research approach, one must abstract up to determine if the approach itself overall has methodological tendencies that truly represent the ontological and epistemological tenets of those discourse communities involved in that approach.

In the case of other research approaches who have considered the phenomena of media audiences/users reception and use of the media, I believe the case can be made that four distinct approaches do have methodological tendencies that, while perhaps not explicit in every single study conducted, do appear across their volumes of work and the ways their adherents are taught to study the phenomenon.  Two of these approaches are underlined by more quantitative assumptions on reality and research: uses-and-gratifications and media effects.  The other two approaches are underlined by more qualitative assumptions: text/audience nexus and everyday media incorporation.  In order to prepare for this essay, I constructed a table to more systematically compare these four approaches; I will discuss below my overall reasons for why I consider these approaches to have at least implicit methodological tendencies.

First, as there is the persistent split in audiences/users studies between qualitative and quantitative approaches, a brief moment to elucidate these differences.  Indeed, many scholars believe, and are taught, that the fundamental differences between these two approaches lies chiefly in their different methodologies – that the quantitative relies on positivistic measurement and reduction to numbers, with surveys and experiments being key to collecting data, while the qualitative relies on interpretive meaning-making and retaining the spoken word, with interviews and researcher reflections being key to constructing data.  But, as I have already written on, a methodology is a methodology if there is some metatheoretical structure of beliefs organizing how methods are conceived of and employed.  By necessity then qualitative and quantitative differ on ontological and epistemological grounds; the latter tends to believe in a material reality as being the only object that can be measured, while the former tends to believe in the importance of the interpretations of the subject in determining reality. 

While each approach has subgroups that form particular discourse communities that are focused on specific phenomena, these two overarching approaches do exert influence on their subgroups in how they think about and come to know their objects and subjects of interest.  Indeed, the assumptions between these two overarching approaches have become so commonplace that their subgroups may be less inclined to explicitly report on their methodological assumptions.  Unless these assumptions are being challenged in some way, they are believed to be “normal,” taken for the way things are meant to be.  While qualitative social sciences may be more likely to be explicit in discussing their assumptions, this is only due to their more recent arrival on the field of communication studies as they sought to differentiate and legitimate their work in comparison to quantitative studies; indeed, one could point to how even their basic tenets have slipped into the terrain of ideology.   

To a large extent, the work conducted by the uses-and-gratifications approach has been, or has become, a quantitative endeavor.  As such, one can look across the body of work done to understand why people use the media that they do and find assumptions that underscore how this work is conducted in accordance with more quantitative beliefs.  The primary interest here is in how the focus on the active media user is subsumed by the quantitative call for focusing on objective measurements.  Although uses-and-gratifications propositioned that media users can actively recall their reasons for their media choices, often times these self-reports are constrained by scale items researchers have constructed to represent gratified needs.  The media user is not asked to consider in any depth their reasons beyond the application of a scale that has been created to collect as much replicable and generalizable data as possible.  The goal of the research is to describe or possibly predict what gratification is linked to what use – to explore the objective material reality of media use – without delving into the subjective experiences and processes that led to such use.  Thus the assumption of using a survey and statistics like factor analyses to find general patterns in the population at large.  The media user is reduced to a provider of information (akin to the lion observed by the expert), and it is the role of the objective researcher to interpret this data into a representation of the reality of media use.

With a longer historical lens, media effects even better exemplifies quantitative, and thus positivist or “true scientific”, methodological assumptions.  While the research focuses on what the media does to people, the rise of uses-and-gratifications has meant that media effects research likewise considers the role of the person, or how the media is received.  But even without this formal awareness of the person, media effects is in itself a study of how the media is received by audiences/users; classically ideas about reception were theorized or inferred, and not directly studied, as is more common today.  As is true with uses-and-gratifications, there is a tendency to be wary of in-depth self-reporting, preferring instead the objective measurements of valid psychological scales and behavioral observations.  The concern is on measurements of materially present phenomenon, such as observations, or to use psychological scales to gather information about black box processes if these scales are tried and proven.  Thus, coming from behavioral psychology, media effects has a preference for the experiment, as it allows for control by the researcher over the factors that may determine behavior, such that causality could be inferred as starting with media exposure and ending with media effect.  Again is the researcher given the power over the subject – whether in an experiment or in a survey – because the researcher has been trained to be objective in his or her assessments of the collected results, a claim made easier by the judicious application of statistics.  The methodological assumptions are very similar to uses-and-gratifications; they just happen to be applied to studying what happens after the media has been selected and used.

Approaching the study of audiences/users from the qualitative side, there is reception studies, which I am referring to here as text/audience nexus studies do to some confusion in the field around the various types of audience studies.  By text/audience nexus studies, I am referring to the work done by those critical and cultural scholars who are interested in the ways in which a media text can be read/decoded/interpreted by various media audiences/users.  Texts are conceived as being in some way polysemous; that the meaning of the text is not strictly inherent in the text, imbued there by the Author, but must instead be seen as arising from the process of reading the text, such that different readers could interpret different things based upon the interpretive baggage they bring to the text.  Thus, as inherited from qualitative approaches, these studies seek to understand how meaning is generated from the text.  Also, in keeping with the critical scholarship that formed one of qualitative’s responses to quantitative dominance, these researchers also focus on the ways in which being a member of a socially structured group (such as gender, class, ethnicity) impacts how the text is interpreted.  Thus do two qualitative assumptions play a role in design these studies: interviews to focus on construction of meaning; and, sampling based on membership to a particular segment of society.  Unlike quantitative studies, the results are seen as being constructed from the words of the participants, such that it is the researcher who is beholden to the researchee for providing this information.

Another subgroup of the qualitative approach, one that is sometimes conflated with traditional reception studies, is a focus on conducting ethnographies to understand everyday media incorporation.  This subgroup has a very similar metatheoretical assumption in that the research seeks to understand how the media audiences/users make sense of the media, either a specific technology or a text, as a part of their everyday lives; that is, how is the media seen as a part of how they live.  Thus, like the text/audience nexus studies, these researchers will use interviews to investigate how people see the media; however, they will not do such in relation to a particular text that would allow them to compare different groups’ interpretations of that text.  Instead, everyday media incorporation studies will select a specific group of people, as determined by a particular sociodemographic category or interpretive community, and focus on how the media plays a role in those people’s lives.  The metatheoretical assumption is that to understand the importance of the media in someone’s life, you must come to understand the context in which the media is used, and to a lesser extent how that person sees that media in that context.  Again, conducting classical ethnographies is the method of choice in this form of study – although I would argue the work of Steele and Brown’s bedroom studies is similar in intent if not actual adherence to ethnographic requirements.  As with the text/audience nexus, the researcher is beholden to the information provided by the ethnographic “others”, such that these others hold the power in the research relationship, and this empowerment is again represented in the reliance on detailed descriptions of the “others” lives.

These brief snapshots of the four major media audiences/users study approaches in the field of media studies hopefully highlight some of the main ways in which each approach is methodological.  Even without being explicit about linking why they did the study as determined by their philosophical orientation, the methodological assumptions from the grand research chasm of quantitative versus qualitative can be seen in their approaches to this phenomenon.  The table I constructed, and provide at the end of this essay, will hopefully further highlight how these overarching assumptions trickle down to their subgroups – and how no single study can provide for bridging the gaps in research left by the others.  Indeed, it may be time for the grand chasm to be bridged, as some audiences/users scholars have called for – and could be somewhat accomplished by employing Dervin’s Sense-Making more methodologically to this phenomenon.

4. In your assessment, how does using Sense-Making Methodology facilitate addressing gaps in reception and audience/user studies?

Each of the four methodological approaches outlined above can provide some insight into the phenomenon of media audiences/users reception and use of the media.  There are other theoretical approaches, such as is found in film and literary studies, which could in time determine a methodological approach, but no formal approach has been undertaken at this time.  There are also other fields that have considered the phenomenon of reception and use, such as library sciences and human-computer interaction, which have their own fundamental assumptions in how to study the phenomenon and apply the results to designing information systems.  Indeed, it is in the field of information and library sciences that we find the most discussion and application of Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology, as studies have sought to show that the situation being dealt with by the information user can greatly determine evaluations and uses of information sources.  If we reconceptualize all media sources, whether produced for entertainment reasons or not, as potential information sources for audiences/users, then already do we have a bridge to this field of library studies that allows us to bring into media studies the Sense-Making Methodology.  In fact, while there have been a number of approaches to study this phenomenon from both sides of the grand chasm, looking across all these approaches we can find gaps in our understanding of the phenomenon that the Sense-Making Methodology could potentially held us bridge.

Like both qualitative approaches, the Sense-Making approach would allow for a consideration of the role societal structures play in the power they have to wield and influence people – an explicit consideration that is largely lacking from the quantitative approach.  However, Sense-Making would remove the tendencies to simply see this influence as a) unvarying across members of that societal group and b) unvarying across time in how the members confirm/contest its influence.  Because the Sense-Making Methodology mandates we understand the phenomenon from the position of the sense-making human, this would allow us to find situations in which the person is receiving/using the media in ways that: are consistent with his or her societal membership; are inconsistent with this member; reflect accepting the influence of society; and, reflect contesting/complaining/counteracting this influence.  By inferring reception as determined by membership to a sociodemographic category, both qualitative approaches are no better than the quantitative approaches to seeing the human being as consistent across time and space.  While all approaches do allow for some consideration for how the media audiences/users are active in their daily lives, there has not been any systematic study of how this truly varies depending on the situation in which the media is received/used.  The Sense-Making Methodology would allow for such processes and interpretations of structuring/agenting that occur as people make sense of their lives.

Text/audience nexus studies want to know what people are interpreting in the media, and end up inferring the hows and whys to sociodemographics.  Uses-and-gratifications are sometimes concerned with the expectations and evaluations of what the media can offer in determining media use.  Media effects will measure and compare specific text or technology features to determine the impact of media exposure on effects.  Everyday media incorporation will sometimes be interested with perceptions of technological or textual features in application to everyday experiences.  However, none of these approaches have truly considered the process of interpreting the text called for by the reception theorists of literary and film studies.  Typically the focus has been on what an individual was getting out of the text rather than on how the individual was constructing the text in his or her mind.  Sense-Making’s focus on the verbs of a person’s sense-making could provide the methodology needed to support literary and film studies assertions about the role of the reader.  A Sense-Making study would want to know what led the person to be able to read the text, to understand it, to take the bits and pieces given and put them coherently together.  And along the way, the study could ascertain the pleasure or frustration this reading brought, as well as what the human sense-maker saw as the reason these features elicited such a reaction – even if those reactions have a basis in some idea of power structures with which the person is struggling. 

Uses-and-gratifications tends to focus on general patterns of media use.  Media effects tends to ask general demographic or psychological questions on surveys, or produce hypothetical and artificial situations in which to measure the results of exposure.  Text/audience nexus studies tend to be rather experimental in that participants are exposed to some media and then discuss their reaction to it.  Only everyday media incorporation ethnographies try to get into the lived experiences of the audiences/users, but again they do so without much consideration for the actual interpretive position of the human sense-makers.  A Sense-Making study could ask about a number of media receptions/uses as they were actually experienced by the audiences/users.  More than just providing for the variability needed as outlined above, situated recall is a way to understand actual processes and the consequences these processes had for that individual in that intersection of time-space, as well as any spillage into future situations.  Looking across a variety of different receivings/usings with the same structured questioning approach could illuminate patterns of processes that one individual has for a variety of media, or a variety of people have for one media.  If there are human universals in the receivings/usings of the media, then they are most likely to be found in these situated processes.

Perhaps the most beneficial feature that would be generated by the application of Sense-Making Methodology to the study of audiences/users comes from the ability for the data constructed and collected to be used for either qualitative or quantitative analytic techniques.  The metatheory of the approach is both qualitative, in the sense that it is phenomenologically and critically minded, and quantitative, in that it systematically gathers data with as little researcher bias as possible.  As such, the data can be probed through content analytics whose end results are either the words of the people or the numerical symbols of statistics.  As such, a database composed using the Sense-Making Methodology can provide the common ground for the discourse communities from both sides of the grand chasm to discuss the phenomenon.  Dialogue is a fundamental aspect of the metatheory.  The human being interviewed is encouraged to be self-dialogic in the course of describing their sense-makings.  The researcher is mandated to be on a more dialogically equal ground with the researchee.  But another goal is to provide for a bridge across the grand chasm by encouraging scholarly dialogue among the various approaches to studying a particular phenomenon.  In providing a database that could be “read” by either side of the chasm, this approach could provide the fodder for such a dialogue. 

As with any of the other approaches discussed above, Sense-Making Methodology would be most helpful as added to the mix of approaches and not taken to be the only approach.  Such essentialism about what constitutes the absolute right way to study a phenomenon is contradictory to the philosophy of the approach.  What Sense-Making could provide for is a way of bridging over the gaps that remain in our understanding about media audiences/users as well as across that grand chasm that still divides the field of study into two different camps.

Table 1. Comparison of methodological tendencies for five approaches to media audiences/users receiving/using studies


1.  The reference here is to Michel Foucault’s classical analysis of the history of sexuality as being discursively constructed (1978): 

“Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it. … Discourses are tactical elements or blocks operating in the field of force relations; there can exist different and even contradictory discourses within the same strategy; they can, on the contrary, circulate without changing their form from one strategy to another, opposing strategy.” (p. 101-2).

2.  My conceptualization of methodology comes from coursework I have completed in qualitative methodologies, under the tutelage of Dr. Patti Lather, as well as the variety of texts read to provide guidance on theories and methods: Denzin & Lincoln (2003); Flick (2002); Lindlof & Taylor (2002); Schrøder, Drotner, Kline & Murray (2003).

3.  My understanding of Brenda Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology comes from reading the essays Dervin has written on the subject, as listed in the reference list and collected in the volume by Dervin and Lois Foreman-Wernet.  This reading has been offset with my practical experience that developed over my years of involvement with the OSU-IMLS project: Sense-Making the Information Confluence: The whys and hows of college and university user satisficing of information needs, which are available online at http://imlsosuoclcproject.jcomm. ohio-state.edu/imls_reports_list.html.

4.  There has been a lot of discussion on how these two camps differ from each other.  For selections that focus on reception and use studies, please see: Jensen (1987); Jensen (2002); Jensen & Rosengren (1990); Lindlof (1991); Lindlof & Taylor (2002); Schrøder et al (2003).

5.  The text/audience nexus approach to audience reception studies focuses on those studies that have been greatly influenced by Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model (1973/93).  The model aligns with semiotic and literary theory at the time arguing that an audience could take multiple meanings out of a text, hence making that text polysemic (Alasuutari, 1999; Morley, 1992).  More recently, Sonia Livingstone has called to analyze the actual moments of interaction between the text and the audience (1994, 1998), a concern echoed by Birgitta Höijer (1992) and David Morley (2006).

6.  Schrøder et al (2003) pointed out the tendency for media ethnographies to be confused with the more classical definition of reception studies, which I’ve relabeled text/audience nexus studies.  This confusion can be seen in Alasuutari’s definition of an ethnographic study as the second generation of audience studies: “…one analyses a programme and studies its reception among a particular audience by conducting ‘in-depth’ interviews of its viewers.” (p. 4, 1999); indeed, it is his definition of the third generation that more closely matches the definition of a classical ethnography, as outlined by Schrøder et al (2003).  The incorporation of this anthropological method, starting largely with the work of James Lull, has been on the increase since the 1980s (Alasuutari, 1999; Lindlof, 1991; Morley, 1992).

7.  A number of the theorists calling for a convergence of qualitative and quantitative traditions have come from Scadinavia, such as Jensen (1986, 1987), Jensen & Rosengren (1990), Schrøder (1999, 2001), and Schrøder et al (2003).  Livingstone’s work on soap opera reception provides an example of the application of both semiotics and statistics (1990).


            Alasuutari, P.  (1999).  “Introduction: Three phases of reception studies.”  In P. Alasuutari (Ed.)  Rethinking the Media Audience: The new agenda (pp. 1-21).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publication.

            Ang, I.  (1985).  Watching Dallas: Soap opera and the melodramatic imagination.  New York: Methuen.

            Bandura, A.  (1965).  Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1, p. 585-595.

            Bird, S. E.  (2003). The Audience in Everyday Life: Living in a media world.  New York: Routledge. 

            Brown, J. D., Halpern, C. T. & L’Engle, K. L.  (2006).  Mass media as a sexual super peer for early maturing girls.  Journal of Adolescent Health, 36, p. 420-427.

            Denzin, N. K. & Lincoln, Y. S.  (2003).  The Landscape of Qualitative Research: Theories and issues (2nd ed).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 

            Dervin, B.  (2003a).  “Communication gaps and inequities: Moving toward a reconceptualization.”  In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp. 17-46).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

            Dervin, B.  (2003b).  “Users as research inventions: How research categories perpetuate inequalities.”  In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp. 47-60).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

            Dervin, B.  (2003c).  “Verbing communication: Mandate for disciplinary invention.”  In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp. 101-110).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

            Dervin, B.  (2003d).  “Given a context by any other name: Methodological tools for taming the unruly beast.”  In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp. 111-132).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

            Dervin, B.  (2003e).  “Sense-making’s journey from metatheory to methodology to method: an example using information seeking and use as research focus.”  In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp. 133-164).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

            Dervin, B.  (2003f).  “Mass communicating: Changing conceptions of the audience.” In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp.197-214).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

            Dervin, B.  (2003g).  “Audience as listener and learner, teacher and confidante: the Sense-Making approach.” In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp. 215-232).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

            Dervin, B. & Song, M.  (2005).  Reaching for phenomenological depths in uses and gratifications research: a quantitative empirical investigation.  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, New York City, May.  Available online: http://communication.sbs.ohio-state.edu/sense-making/art/artabsdervinsong05icaUG.html

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            Flick, U.  (2002).  An Introduction to Qualitative Research (2nd ed).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

            Foreman-Wernet, L.  (2003).  “Rethinking communication: Introducing the Sense-Making methodology.”  In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp. 3-16).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

            Foreman-Wernet, L. & Dervin, B.  (2005).  Comparing arts and popular culture experiences: Applying a common methodological framework.  Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, 35(5), p. 169-187.

            Foucault, M.  (1978).  The History of Sexuality: an introduction (vol. 1).  New York: Random House.

            Hall, S.  (1973/1993).  “Encoding, decoding.”  In S. During (Ed.).  The cultural studies reader (pp. 90-103).  New York: Routledge.

            Jensen, K. B.  (1986).  Making Sense of the News: Towards a theory and an empirical model of reception for the study of mass communication.  Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press.

            Jensen, K. B.  (1987).  Qualitative audience research: Toward an integrative approach to reception.  Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 4, p. 21-36.

            Jensen, K. B. (Ed.).  (2002).  A Handbook of Media and Communication Research: Qualitative and quantitative methodologies.  New York: Routledge.

            Jensen, K. B. & Rosengren, K. E.  (1990).  Five traditions in search of the audience.  European Journal of Communication, 5, p. 207-238.

            Liebes, T. & Katz, E.  (1990).  The Export of Meaning: Cross-cultural readings of Dallas.  New York: Oxford University Press.

            Lindlof, T. R.  (1991).  The qualitative study of media audiences.  Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 35(1), p. 23-42.

            Lindlof, T. R. & Taylor, B. C.  (2002).  Qualitative Communication Research Methods (2nd ed.).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

            Livingstone, S.  (1994).  “The rise and fall of audience research: An old story with a new ending.”  In M. R. Levy & M. Gurevitch (Eds.)  Defining Media Studies: Reflections on the future of the field (pp. 247-255).  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

            Livingstone, S.  (1998).  “Relationships between media and audiences: Prospects for audience reception studies.”  In T. Liebes & J. Curran (Eds.).  Media, Ritual and Identity (pp. 237-255).  New York: Routledge.

            Lull, J.  (1991).  Inside Family Viewing: Ethnographic Research on Television’s Audiences.  New York: Routledge.

            McKenzie-Mohr, D. & Zanna, M. P.  (1990).  Treating women as sexual objects: Look to the (gender schematic) male who has viewed pornography.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 16, p. 296-308.

            Morley, D.  (1992).  Television, Audiences and Cultural Studies.  New York: Routledge.

            Morley, D.  (2006).  Unanswered questions in audience research.  The Communication Review, 9, p. 101-121.

            Morley, D. & Brunsdon, C.  (1999).  The Nationwide Television Studies.  New York: Routledge.

            Press, A. L.  (1991).  Woman Watching Television: Gender, class and generation in the American television experience.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

            Radway, J. A.  (1984).  Reading the Romance: Women, patriarchy, and popular literature.  Charlotte, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

            Schrøder, K. C.  (1999).  “The best of both worlds? Media audience research between rival paradigms.”  In P. Alasuutari (Ed.)  Rethinking the Media Audience: The new agenda (pp. 38-64).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publication.

            Schrøder, K. C.  (2001).  Beyond the pioneer days! — Where is reception research going?  Nordicom Review, 1, retrieved on 7/05/07 from http://www.nordicom.gu.se/common/publ_pdf/ 16_003_016.pdf

            Schrøder, K., Drotner, K., Kline, S. & Murray, C.  (2003).  Researching Audiences.  New York: Oxford University Press.

            Sherry, J. L, Lucas, K., Greenberg, B. S. & Lachlan, K.  (2006).  Video game use and gratifications as predicators of use and game preference.  In P. Vorderer & J. Bryant (eds.).  Playing Video Games: Motives, responses, and consequences (pp. 213-224).  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

            Spirek, M. M., Dervin, B., Nilan, M., & Martin, M.  (1999).  Bridging gaps between audience and media: a Sense-Making comparison of reader information needs in life-facing versus newspaper reading contexts.  The Electronic Journal of Communication/La Revue Electronique de Communication, 9(2-4), online.

            Steele, J. R. & Brown, J. D. (1995).  Adolescent room culture: Studying media in the context of everyday life.  Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 24(5), p. 551-576.

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