Social scientific media and technology scholars (MTS) use empirical methods — research based in real-world observation and data collection — to explore the influence media technologies have on human communication. In research that ranges from the statistical analysis of Twitter activity of right-wing extremists (Ganesh 2020) to the ethnographic study of radio engineers (Dunbar Hester), social scientific MTS scholars draw on empirical methods to describe, interpret, and sometimes predict how different media technologies impact communication.
This article aims to provide students of communication a sense of the historical development of social scientific media research. It surveys the history and key concerns of social scientific media research and, more specifically, research on digital technology and computer mediated communication. Finally, it discusses the current state and key issues that contemporary social scientific media and technology research explores today.
A Brief History of Social Scientific Approaches to Media Studies
Up until the 20th century, the analysis of media took place primarily through aesthetic criticism conducted by those who studied art, music, literature, and drama. The modern study of media and, in particular, the study of media as technologies of communication began with quantitative social scientific research. Spurred on by the strategic importance of communication technologies during the World Wars, early media scholars employed empirical methodologies, derived primarily from sociology and social psychology, to evaluate the sociopolitical implications of mass communication technologies. This early research took two major forms: media effects research, and Information Theory.
First, the use of telecommunications technologies to communicate encoded messages during the World Wars set the stage for the development of “information theory,” which studies the mathematical and scientific issues underpinning how communication can be encoded and circulated as information. Alan Turing’s famous work in cryptography during WWII and his subsequent research at Bell Labs in the early 1940s popularized the notion that human meaning is computable. This means any process, no matter how massive or complex, could be encoded and reproduced by a computer of sufficient power.
Turing’s research influenced Claude Shannon’s “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” published in 1948, which introduced Information Theory as a unique approach to understanding communication. Information, according to Shannon, is a message that has been encoded into a signal so that it can be communicated through one or many media. This text, and its expanded publication the following year as a book with Darren Weaver, innovated and popularized a “transmission model” of communication.
The Shannon-Weaver Model conceives of communication as the process through which an “information source” employs a “transmitter,” which converts communication into a “signal” that can be transmitted through a “channel” (a communication medium) to a “receiver” that decodes the signal and delivers it to the information’s “destination.” Finally, as it travels the channel, the message becomes subject to the external interference of “noise.” This model of communication has been subject to widespread criticism but remains one of the most widely referenced theories of communication in the discipline today.
Second, the widespread use of political propaganda generated concerns about mass media effects, especially given that new forms of mass communication seemed to be correlated with the rise of fascism in European democracies. Research in information theory introduced the idea that communication might be measured, quantitatively, as information. However, though information theory studies human communication, its social scientific perspective emphasizes the scientific and technical over the social aspect of human communication. Information theory aims to analyze and innovate methods of encoding, transmitting, and decoding information that allow mediated communication to take place with minimal noise or information loss.
This early research was revolutionary in introducing the idea that human communication could be captured through quantitative analysis. However, as discussed in our Introductory Guide to Media and Technology Studies and our Introductory Guide to Mass Communication, this research turned up little empirical support for its claims — so much so that media effects research had been largely abandoned by the 1960s. But the failures of early quantitative media research proved to be vitally important to the development of MTS in the post-War period. For social scientific scholars, the shortcomings of this early research encouraged the application of empirical methods to more specific contexts like interpersonal, group, or organizational communication. The limits to quantitative media effects research also led to the widespread adoption of qualitative approaches to social scientific research. As such, social scientific media research is some of the more robust and varied being conducted in the communication discipline today.
Spotlight on Scholarship – Featured Scholars in Social Scientific Approaches to Media and Technology StudiesLearn about the contemporary scholars who are advancing the field of Media nd Technology Studies through their innovative research on topics such as digital media technologies’ evolution, social media’s impact on political participation and equality, content moderation and regulation, and celebrity’s relationship with identity on social media and other digital media platforms.
Pablo J. Boczkowski holds the distinguished position of Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in the Communication Studies department at Northwestern University. At Northwestern, Dr. Boczkowski serves as Director for both the Center for Latinx Digital Media (which he also founded) and the Masters of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program. His research specifically attends to the impact of digital technologies and social media platforms on news media. His first book, Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers, which was published by MIT Press in 2004, received a number of awards from the National Communication Association. Dr. Boczkowski publishes prolifically, both individually and in collaboration with other scholars, and has four separate book projects due for publication in the near future.
Tarleton Gillespie is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and an Adjunct Associate Professor of Communication at Cornell University. While this appointment currently prevents him from teaching courses, Dr. Gillespie remains an active scholarly voice in media and technology studies. His timely research focuses on the political, social and cultural implications of platform technologies including social media platforms like Facebook and search engines like Google. Dr. Gillespie’s newest book, Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions that Shape Social Media, was published by Yale in 2018. He has also published essays on platform politics in journals such as New Media and Society, Information Communication and Society, and elsewhere.
Alice Marwick is Associate Professor of Communication at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she also serves as Faculty Affiliate for the Center for Media Law and Policy. At UNC, Dr. Marwick also serves as a Principal Researcher at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life. Her first book Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and Branding in the Social Media Age (Yale 2013) concerns the relationship between digital technology and practices of self-presentation and communication. Dr. Marwick’s more recent research, like the co-authored 2017 report Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online and in her newest book, also forthcoming from Yale, focuses on media manipulation and disinformation, with a focus on extreme right and conspiratorial subcultures online.
Zizi Papacharissi is Head of the Communication Department at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where she is a Professor in both Communication and Political Science. Her research focuses on the relationship between new media technologies, sociality, and political communication, and she also worked as a consultant in these areas, most notably for the Obama campaign. Dr. Papacharissi has published widely, including in Social Media + Society, the International Journal of Communication and New Media & Society. She has also authored a number of acclaimed books, including Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology and Politics, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2010. Her newest book, After Democracy, is forthcoming from Yale.
Zeynep Tufekci is Associate Professor in the School of Information and Library Sciences at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Tufekci is an associate of the Berkman Kleine Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and, like Dr. Alice Marwick above, works as a principal researcher at the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at UNC. In addition to her academic research, Dr. Tufekci is also an active public scholar -- she has given three Ted Talks and contributes writing to The Atlantic, The New York Times, Wired and more. Her book Twitter and Teargas: The Ecstatic, Fragile Politics of Networked Protest in the 21st Century was published by Yale in 2018.
Computer Mediated Communication and Quantitative Internet Research
Computer Mediated Communication emerged as a specialized area of communication research in response to the popularization of the Internet in the 1990s. Drawing on insights from social psychology and information theory, CMC’s main concern is how digital technologies mediate communication, especially in interpersonal and organizational contexts. As such, CMC researchers developed a number of theories to account for how digital media alters the relationship between speakers, audiences, and the information they exchange.
As founding CMC scholar Jonathan Walther (1996) notes, CMC explores the implications of the lack of nonverbal communication in text-based forms of digital communication, which reduces the “social presence’ of the communicators, diminishes the “richness” of the media content, and reduces other social and contextual factors typically present in face-to-face communication. According to Walter, these conditions encourage a “hyperpersonal” style of communication, where communicators attempt to portray themselves in the best light possible in a process known as selective self-presentation. Ultimately, this feedback loop can result in a relationship in which communicators consistently present an ideal form of self that is based on the likes and dislikes of the other communicator.
This research helpfully explores how digital media changes communication in comparison to face-to-face interaction. As noted above, though, research on CMC has primarily been focused on interpersonal and organizational communication. Today, motivated by contemporary political problems, scholars in MTS are currently producing a huge volume of quantitative research on the social, cultural and political significance of digital media and Internet-based communication. Scholars of political communication, for example, gather quantitative data to examine the connection between social media campaigns and political participation and voter turnout. Others have studied social media platforms for “emotional contagion,” the formation of like-minded “echo chambers” on social media, and the circulation of fake news and extremist political discourse. These interests have expanded quantitative research on mediated communication well past the initial focus of CMC research, and inspired the development of increasingly sophisticated tools for measuring and mapping online communication.
Qualitative and Mixed Methods Research on Media and Technology
While early research on media and technology studies is almost exclusively quantitative, and a great deal of contemporary research still uses quantitative methodologies, contemporary social scientific research now describes a vast and diverse field of empirical scholarship that often uses qualitative methods and critical methods alongside or instead of quantitative ones. Researchers have challenged the communication-as-information approach of early media effects research and CMC for the same reason: it does not account for the role of social, cultural and political factors in the production, circulation, and reception of media messages. To fill in these gaps, social scientific media research has moved to incorporate qualitative research methods including interviews, participant observation, and ethnography.
Contemporary MTS scholarship shares CMC’s interest in the transformative effects of digital media on human communication and sociality. However, current researchers consider the consequences of media technologies beyond their efficacy as a means of communication, or information transmission. Zizi Papacharissi (2014), for instance, agrees that digital media has created an increasingly personal relationship to political information and that, because of this, individuals form “affective” publics online — that is, groups of political decision making that are formed primarily around sentimental and emotional bonds.
What matters to affective publics is not simply what is communicated but how that information is felt, internalized and transformed into action by its audiences. Indeed, there is evidence suggesting that digital media impacts individual and group identity in ways that have social, political, and cultural importance outside of how effectively messages get communicated. Alice Marwick (2011, 2013) and danah boyd (2007, 2014) have written persuasively about how digital platforms alter practices of self-presentation, and motivate individuals to model their own digital, public lives after those of celebrities.
In her individual writing, Marwick (2012) has also investigated how these situations lead individuals to surveille one another and themselves. The research conducted by these authors has essential implications for understanding how networked communications relate to social identity that extend far beyond interpersonal communication dynamics, dealing with issues of cultural identity, social relationality, and power. In order to tackle issues of such complexity and social significance, media scholars like those discussed in this article routinely draw on qualitative and mixed methods research.
Qualitative communication research applies the social constructionist perspectives popularized by sociology and cultural studies in the second half of the 20th century to the study of mediated communication. These theories view the sociocultural importance of media technologies as something that is produced by the interaction between the technical features of the media and how users relate to that technology. In turn, these two things are conditioned social, cultural and political factors. In other words, alone, neither the individuals receiving the media nor the media itself can account for its social and political consequences. Instead, these two factors interact with one another, as well as their larger cultural context, in determining the significance of mediated communication.
Social Scientific Research in Media and Technology Studies Today
Contemporary social scientific research in MTS is a rapidly developing field that shifts in response to developments in the state of technology, innovations in academic methodologies, and changes in the social and political world. Increasingly, social scientific MTS scholars draw on mixed methods — a combination of quantitative, qualitative, and critical approaches — in order to understand the social impacts of media and technology. Many scholars also incorporate multiple methods from one of these categories. For example, in his recent article on the extreme right politics online, Luke Munn (2019) draws on interviews and autoethnographic writings of research subjects, two distinct qualitative methodologies, and combines this with quantitative research to examine how processes of online radicalization take place.
Contemporary social scientific researchers also often consider questions of power more commonly taken up in critical / cultural research. One question on the forefront of social scientific research is how social media platforms sustain or exacerbate existing sociopolitical inequalities. Another is how social media platforms facilitate extremist politics. Empirical methods help reveal the way social media platforms, search engines, and other digital technologies reflect or worsen existing social inequalities on the basis of race, sexuality, gender and class.
In other words, contemporary researchers often employ qualitative or quantitative research to critical ends. Safiya Nobel’s (2018) text Algorithms of Oppression, which argues that search engines perpetuate negative racist and sexist logics and representations, and Virginia Eubanks’ (2018) Automating Inequality, which explores how the datafication of social relations has strengthened the link between race and class, are two excellent examples of this kind of scholarship. Scholarship like this represents why social scientific research is so important in our present moment. By combining empirical rigor with a critical sensitivity to power, contemporary social scientific media research aims to understand and address some of our most pressing sociopolitical issues.
Citations and Additional Sources
The social scientific study of media technologies and their significance to communication is constantly shifting as new research is published and new technologies emerge. Students who wish to learn more about social scientific research on media and technology should check out the sources below.
Additional Topics on Media and Technology Studies
This article provides a thorough introduction to the field of Media Technology Studies (MTS), which is dedicated to studying the impact of communication technologies on different societal spheres, from cultural development to ethnic identity, political advocacy and ideologies, and socioeconomic (in)equality.
This article discusses scholarly efforts to understand the materiality of media technologies. It explores how scholars have understood the importance of the medium in communication, examines media as an effect of the material relations that make up society, and introduces newer generations of scholarship focused on the ways human life is influenced by the non-human.