Sunday, December 14, 2008

What good is geography to the study of mass communication?

Or, What good is mass communication to the study of (human) geography?

I wondered why the question wasn’t posed the other way around, or why not, “and vice versa?” But, appropriately, for my answer, the way the question is posed does not make a difference. What good is geography to the study of mass communication? For me, it demonstrates and reinforces the idea that disciplinary boundaries are BOGUS.

My personal graduate school background involves a couple of years of quantitative study in mass communication. In my development as a grad student, there are a few seminal articles—and moments, literally, in a grad school classroom—which have determined the direction my interests have taken or solidified a way of thinking that might just have been inherent. In the communication side of things, the article that spoke most loudly to me was Todd Gitlin’s (1978), Media sociology: The dominant paradigm.

The view of mass communication studies presented by Gitlin is one a field which, at its inception and for decades to follow, was overwhelmingly empirical and social-scientific in its orientation to research. He criticizes the media effects tradition of research for its approach, “the search for specific, measurable, short-term, individual effects” (p. 224). This hearkens back to the reactions to the quantitative revolution in geography that we read about in Key Texts. Gitlin’s discussion of Personal Influence—one of the “key texts” in mass communication—shows the ways in which mass communication studies was born out of a behavioral science tradition. Gitlin’s describes the dominant paradigm of mass communication as a “fetishism of facts,” and quotes Adorno as having said he has no problem with empirical research as such, but with its primacy over—and instead of—theory.

Amen!

After arriving at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and re-reading Gitlin in one of Hemant Shah’s seminars, I began to take Gitlin’s polemical argument more seriously. This meant leaving media effects research behind. And led me to Cultural Studies. And eventually, human geography as well. I gravitated to Cultural Studies because the theory, cultural/historical focus, and INTERDISCIPLINARY inquiry allowed me a much wider perspective on communication and social phenomena more generally. But when I took a class in human geography last semester in the geography department, I realized that geography had a lot of incredibly useful and important theory that often did not enter the vocabulary of cultural studies—and unfortunately, many other disciplines too.

In short, cultural studies and human geography are top-notch in my book. Because you can study virtually ANYTHING! This is not to say that the fields are chaotic or without foci, rather, that they engage with social theory on a level that is appealing to me. I remember reading an interview with Stuart Hall where he says we should not be concerned with policing the boundaries of what constitutes Cultural Studies. And in some ways, human geography is the same for me—boundaryless (pardon the pun)! What of society or nature isn’t geographical?

Key Texts in Human Geography was probably one of my favorites because it traced the development of human geography in a chronological fashion that allowed us to see the phases and breadth of work in the field. First, bless Yi-Fu Tuan’s heart for taking an entirely novel approach to geography and allowing such a rich account of the experiences of human beings in space and place.

And Harvey’s work I will likely keep close to my heart, for making historical materialism into
historical–geographical materialism, for coherently giving capital it’s due as a social force in The Condition of Postmodernity, and for promoting knowledge in the service of social change.

I am still deciding what to do with Castells. The formulations of the space of flows and the network society are useful for empirical work, surely, but, for now, I’d rather not privilege the broader theoretical ideas of Castells over any other “theory.” Taking classes in many departments—as most of us are fortunate enough to be able to do—has meant that we as graduate students consume lots of theory. Mull over, weigh out, decide the utility of. And settle on which to buy, employ, and reinforce with our own research.

My conclusion is not just that geography and mass communication have cannons of work that can enrich one another and that communication and geographic theory are mutually informing. As a student of mass communication, this class has showed me that most analyses are incomplete without an understanding of the geographical aspects of social phenomena and processes. But more than that, it has made me a better consumer of any type of social scientific research. This class has increased my vocabulary. It has made it more spatial and sensitive to place, allowing me to become a better consumer of research, and hopefully, author as well.

Above all, this class has confirmed my commitment to interdisciplinarity. Again, amen!

1 comment:

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