Students interested in earning a graduate degree in communication should have at least some interest in understanding communication theories and/or conducting communication research. As students advance from undergraduate to graduate programs, an interesting change takes place — the student is no longer just a repository for knowledge. Rather, the student is expected to learn while also creating knowledge. This new knowledge is largely generated through the development and completion of research in communication studies. Before exploring the different methodologies used to conduct communication research, it is important to have a foundational understanding of the field of communication.

Overview of Communication

Defining communication is much harder than it sounds. Indeed, scholars have argued about the topic for years, typically differing on the following topics:

  • Breadth: How many behaviors and actions should or should not be considered communication.
  • Intentionality: Whether the definition includes an intention to communicate.
  • Success: Whether someone was able to effectively communicate a message, or merely attempted to without it being received or understood.

However, most definitions discuss five main components, which include: sender, receiver, context/environment, medium, and message. Broadly speaking, communication research examines these components, asking questions about each of them and seeking to answer those questions.

As students seek to answer their own questions, they follow an approach similar to most other researchers. This approach proceeds in five steps: conceptualize, plan and design, implement a methodology, analyze and interpret, reconceptualize.

  1. Conceptualize: In the conceptualization process, students develop their area of interest and determine if their specific questions and hypotheses are worth investigating. If the research has already been completed, or there is no practical reason to research the topic, students may need to find a different research topic.
  2. Plan and Design: During planning and design students will select their methods of evaluation and decide how they plan to define their variables in a measurable way.
  3. Implement a Methodology: When implementing a methodology, students collect the data and information they require. They may, for example, have decided to conduct a survey study. This is the step when they would use their survey to collect data. If students chose to conduct a rhetorical criticism, this is when they would analyze their text.
  4. Analyze and Interpret: As students analyze and interpret their data or evidence, they transform the raw findings into meaningful insights. If they chose to conduct interviews, this would be the point in the process where they would evaluate the results of the interviews to find meaning as it relates to the communication phenomena of interest.
  5. Reconceptualize: During reconceptualization, students ask how their findings speak to a larger body of research — studies related to theirs that have already been completed and research they should execute in the future to continue answering new questions.

This final step is crucial, and speaks to an important tenet of communication research: All research contributes to a better overall understanding of communication and moves the field forward by enabling the development of new theories.

Communication Research Methods

In the field of communication, there are three main research methodologies: quantitative, qualitative, and rhetorical. As communication students progress in their careers, they will likely find themselves using one of these far more often than the others.

Quantitative Research

Quantitative research seeks to establish knowledge through the use of numbers and measurement. Within the overarching area of quantitative research, there are a variety of different methodologies. The most commonly used methodologies are experiments, surveys, content analysis, and meta-analysis. To better understand these research methods, you can explore the following examples:

Experiments: Experiments are an empirical form of research that enable the researcher to study communication in a controlled environment. For example, a researcher might know that there are typical responses people use when they are interrupted during a conversation. However, it might be unknown as to how frequency of interruption provokes those different responses (e.g., do communicators use different responses when interrupted once every 10 minutes versus once per minute?). An experiment would allow a researcher to create these two environments to test a hypothesis or answer a specific research question. As you can imagine, it would be very time consuming — and probably impossible — to view this and measure it in the real world. For that reason, an experiment would be perfect for this research inquiry.

Surveys: Surveys are often used to collect information from large groups of people using scales that have been tested for validity and reliability. A researcher might be curious about how a supervisor sharing personal information with his or her subordinate affects way the subordinate perceives his or her supervisor. The researcher could create a survey where respondents answer questions about a) the information their supervisors self-disclose and b) their perceptions of their supervisors. The data collected about these two variables could offer interesting insights about this communication. As you would guess, an experiment would not work in this case because the researcher needs to assess a real relationship and they need insight into the mind of the respondent.

Content Analysis: Content analysis is used to count the number of occurrences of a phenomenon within a source of media (e.g., books, magazines, commercials, movies, etc.). For example, a researcher might be interested in finding out if people of certain races are underrepresented on television. They might explore this area of research by counting the number of times people of different races appear in prime time television and comparing that to the actual proportions in society.

Meta-Analysis: In this technique, a researcher takes a collection of quantitative studies and analyzes the data as a whole to get a better understanding of a communication phenomenon. For example, a researcher might be curious about how video games affect aggression. This researcher might find that many studies have been done on the topic, sometimes with conflicting results. In their meta-analysis, they could analyze the existing statistics as a whole to get a better understanding of the relationship between the two variables.

Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is interested in exploring subjects’ perceptions and understandings as they relate to communication. Imagine two researchers who want to understand student perceptions of the basic communication course at a university. The first researcher, a quantitative researcher, might measure absences to understand student perception. The second researcher, a qualitative researcher, might interview students to find out what they like and dislike about a course. The former is based on hard numbers, while the latter is based on human experience and perception.

Qualitative researchers employ a variety of different methodologies. Some of the most popular are interviews, focus groups, and participant observation. To better understand these research methods, you can explore the following examples:

Interviews: This typically consists of a researcher having a discussion with a participant based on questions developed by the researcher. For example, a researcher might be interested in how parents exert power over the lives of their children while the children are away at college. The researcher could spend time having conversations with college students about this topic, transcribe the conversations and then seek to find themes across the different discussions.

Focus Groups: A researcher using this method gathers a group of people with intimate knowledge of a communication phenomenon. For example, if a researcher wanted to understand the experience of couples who are childless by choice, he or she might choose to run a series of focus groups. This format is helpful because it allows participants to build on one another’s experiences, remembering information they may otherwise have forgotten. Focus groups also tend to produce useful information at a higher rate than interviews. That said, some issues are too sensitive for focus groups and lend themselves better to interviews.

Participant Observation: As the name indicates, this method involves the researcher watching participants in their natural environment. In some cases, the participants may not know they are being studied, as the researcher fully immerses his or herself as a member of the environment. To illustrate participant observation, imagine a researcher curious about how humor is used in healthcare. This researcher might immerse his or herself in a long-term care facility to observe how humor is used by healthcare workers interacting with patients.

Rhetorical Research

Rhetorical research (or rhetorical criticism) is a form of textual analysis wherein the researcher systematically analyzes, interprets, and critiques the persuasive power of messages within a text. This takes on many forms, but all of them involve similar steps: selecting a text, choosing a rhetorical method, analyzing the text, and writing the criticism.

To illustrate, a researcher could be interested in how mass media portrays “good degrees” to prospective college students. To understand this communication, a rhetorical researcher could take 30 articles on the topic from the last year and write a rhetorical essay about the criteria used and the core message argued by the media.

Likewise, a researcher could be interested in how women in management roles are portrayed in television. They could select a group of popular shows and analyze that as the text. This might result in a rhetorical essay about the behaviors displayed by these women and what the text says about women in management roles.

As a final example, one might be interested in how persuasion is used by the president during the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. A researcher could select several recent presidents and write a rhetorical essay about their speeches and how they employed persuasion during their delivery.

Mixed Methodology

Taking a mixed methods approach results in a research study that uses two or more techniques discussed above. Often, researchers will pair two methods together in the same study examining the same phenomenon. Other times, researchers will use qualitative methods to develop quantitative research, such as a researcher who uses a focus group to discuss the validity of a survey before it is finalized.

The benefit of mixed methods is that it offers a richer picture of a communication phenomenon by gathering data and information in multiple ways. If we explore some of the earlier examples, we can see how mixed methods might result in a better understanding of the communication being studied.

Example 1: In surveys, we discussed a researcher interested in understanding how a supervisor sharing personal information with his or her subordinate affects the way the subordinate perceives his or her supervisor. While a survey could give us some insight into this communication, we could also add interviews with subordinates. Exploring their experiences intimately could give us a better understanding of how they navigate self-disclosure in a relationship based on power differences.

Example 2: In content analysis, we discussed measuring representation of different races during prime time television. While we can count the appearances of members of different races and compare that to the composition of the general population, that doesn’t tell us anything about their portrayal. Adding rhetorical criticism, we could talk about how underrepresented groups are portrayed in either a positive or negative light, supporting or defying commonly held stereotypes.

Example 3: In interviews, we saw a researcher who explored how power could be exerted by parents over their college-age children who are away at school. After determining the tactics used by parents, this interview study could have a phase two. In this phase, the researcher could develop scales to measure each tactic and then use those scales to understand how the tactics affect other communication constructs. One could argue, for example, that student anxiety would increase as a parent exerts greater power over that student. A researcher could conduct a hierarchical regression to see how each power tactic effects the levels of stress experienced by a student.

As you can see, each methodology has its own merits, and they often work well together. As students advance in their study of communication, it is worthwhile to learn various research methods. This allows them to study their interests in greater depth and breadth. Ultimately, they will be able to assemble stronger research studies and answer their questions about communication more effectively.

Note: For more information about research in the field of communication, check out our Guide to Communication Research and Scholarship.

About the Author: Caleb Malik is a digital marketing strategist. He earned his Master's in Communication from Illinois State University, where he focused on organizational communication and quantitative research methods.