Media Communication Research in the Digital Era: Moving Beyond Ontological Dualism

Media Communication Research in the Digital Era: Moving Beyond Ontological Dualism Abstract The proliferation of research in media communication has yet brought about perspectives, concepts or theories that could do justice to changes in the media world. Possible causes of the problem were named, yet few had looked for answers in the way theoretical debates unfolded in the past. An examination of the patterns of advancing debates in media studies shows the influence of ontological dualism. By bringing to light the assumptions underlying the conception of communication processes and questioning their adequacies in providing a comprehensive understanding of the media world, this study teases out the limitations that the mechanistic dualist framework has imposed on research, explains the necessity of fundamental changes, and proposes a dynamic ontological framework as an alternative. The presence of digital media in almost all aspects of life has pushed communication studies to the brink of overexpansion (Corner, 2015). However, it seems that this proliferation of research has yet to bring about the kind of perspective, analytical framework or concept and theory that could do justice to the scope and scale of changes currently taking place in the media world. Recent studies on media content flows, for example, have seen the revival of both the one-step flow (Bennett & Manheim, 2006; Thorson & Wells, 2016) and the two-step flow proposition (Messing & Westwood, 2012; Penney, 2017; Stromer-Galley, 2014; Thorson & Wells, 2016). These views still hold explanatory power in this digital era, but only under certain “conditions”—conditions defined by “proliferating contingencies” (Thorson & Wells, 2016, p. 310) that often lead to opposite conclusions about the new media environment (Donsbach & Mothes, 2012), and hence defy the generalization of findings. Unfortunately, this scenario is not an isolated case. Three decades ago, Wartella and Reeves (1985) had already warned that almost identical questions about effects were recycled each time a new communication technology appeared, from movies and comic books to television and video games. Today the trend persists. After a comprehensive review, Mitchelstein and Boczkowski (2010) concluded that the dominant modes of inquiry on Internet news consumption were characterized by a reliance on traditional conceptual and methodological preferences. More recently, studies on the impact of social media and computer games (e.g., Ferguson, 2017; Neuman & Guggenheim, 2011, p. 170) were found to have followed similar patterns. To add to researchers’ frustrations, the dominant effect model has yet, after decades of painstaking research works, produced solid evidence to support its claims (Lang, 2013, p. 15). The field of study is caught in a predicament on both ends: an ineffective and rapidly outdated research paradigm on one end, and on the other, the risk of “overconnection” (Corner, 2015, p. 417), and further diversification and fragmentation (Boromisza-Habashi, 2013, p. 412; Corner, 2015, p. 418; Hanitzsch, 2015; Vorderer & Weinmann, 2016, p. 211; Waisbord, 2015, 2016; Zelizer, 2013, p. 412) when new topic areas of study emerge and research designs become more sophisticated. New theories have been called for, and diagnoses of the problem have been offered. A number of factors have been named as contributing to the problem: The failures of research—including refined and complex mid-range theories—to add knowledge to the literature (Lang, 2013, p. 14; Potter, 2012, p. 320); the movement away from social science methodology (Baran & Davis, 2013, pp. 350–351; DeFleur, 1998; Lang, 2013, p. 15); the absence of longitudinal studies (Baran & Davis, 2013, p. 351; Katz, 2009); and even the flight of talent away from universities (Baran & Davis, 2013, p. 350). These analyses spoke certain truths, but they have mostly directed hopes for turning the tide to an upgraded version of existing research. One may disagree with Lang’s notion of “discipline in crisis” (Lang, 2013; Perloff, 2013); her observations however, oblige us to reconsider the fundamentals of what has been asked and researched. Can it be that the problem of conceptual inertia has as much to do with the way we advance debates and arguments? It is necessary for us to “think out of the box” in this time of dazzling changes, but are we aware of the existence of a “box,” let alone knowing what it looks like and what limitations it imposes? Before looking for solutions, we need to know how we have arrived where we are today. This investigation begins with an examination of the way media communication was conceptualized and researched, and the issues that have caused concerns in the community. By exposing the assumptions underlying media theories and questioning their adequacies in conceptualizing present day communication processes, this study found that the way theoretical debates unfolded in previous research has clearly reflected the influences of Cartesian dualism,1 the dominant ontological framework underlying scientific and social scientific research.2 Ontological issues are rarely discussed in communication studies or in social scientific research. While ontological frameworks are normally the outcome of metaphysical and philosophical debates, once taken shape, in a given study they and the tacit rules, principles, and preconditions that come with this framework are often assumed and given, rather than examined or challenged, in the process of research. Together ontological frameworks and their rules point to the fundamental categories of things and their relations, hence they have a major role to play in deciding the nature of the question and how it is asked, and entailing certain ways, but not others, in prioritizing, organizing, and navigating thoughts and ideas.3 In terms of the healthy development of an area of study, ontological framework is by no means an innocent third party. In the second part of this study the limitations that Cartesian dualism has posed on communication studies—especially in studying digital communication—are teased out and their implications on future studies are examined. Fundamental changes are called for, as without them efforts to dissolve ontological dualism can lead to its self-perpetuation, and even aggravation of the field’s fragmentation problem. To better capture the essence of media communication in this digital era, an ontological framework that conceptualizes communication as a dynamic, rather than a mechanistic, deterministic process is proposed as a possible alternative to Cartesian dualism. The purpose of this study is not to prescribe an all-around solution to problems, but it is hoped that the discussion will stimulate debates on the need for new perspectives, and help generate concepts and theories more in line with the present day media communication by releasing our inspirations from the limitations of ontological dualism. Ontological framework is certainly not the only factor in determining the way we approach research, however, in neglecting it we will also certainly face difficulties in gaining a clear view of the way ahead. Following the dualistic footprints Born out of concerns over the impact of Nazi propaganda, the traditional model of communication, as depicted by Lasswell (McQuail & Windahl, 1993), has featured a linear process with media/communicator and audiences/consumers forming a dichotomous pair. The way these paired concepts relate to one another was underscored by the question “with what effect,” which assumed a one-way influence of the communicator over the message receiver. Today the scale and scope of media communication research has long outgrown the above model, but the basic framework for analyzing communication processes has largely persisted, especially in studies adopting an empirical approach. Few had noted that the Lasswellian way of conceptualizing the communication process actually reflects a dualist structure and that this structure is still consequential in what our research produces. In European philosophy, the term “dualism” is closely identified with the Cartesian notion of mind and body—generally considered as the dualism “prototype” (Cronen, 2009). According to Descartes, the non-physical mind is categorically different from, and irreducible to, the physical body, but is capable of causing movements in the latter. The theory itself may now be regarded as a long-defunct doctrine by most biologists and philosophers.4 Cartesian dualism, however, is seen to have laid the philosophical ground for scientific discoveries by demythologizing the body and setting the physical and the non-physical apart. What is of special interest here is not the discussion surrounding the validity of Descartes’ claims or the debate on mind and consciousness that follows, but the ontological structure of Cartesian dualism. It not only traces back to debates in the Greek era, but most importantly, is regarded as the underlying ontological position of most scientific and social scientific investigations (e.g., Pickering, 2010). Logical reasoning that dictates the validity of theorems, epistemological criteria that determine the truthfulness of knowledge claims, and ethical principles that distinguish the right from wrong of individual actions all exemplify this binary system of thinking. Compared with binary thinking in other cultural traditions, the type emerging from metaphysical and philosophical debates in Europe is distinctly different in the way the two parts, entities or categories are seen and relate to each other. In contrast to “monism”5 that suggests there is only one single fundamental kind or category of things, according to dualism, the world is divided in two mutually exclusive, opposite, and dichotomous categories with an unbridgeable gap in between. Of the two, one is often regarded as superior and worthier of pursuit.6 Cartesian dualism does not dictate all of the theoretical arguments in social sciences, nor in communication research; studies on media psychology and language and social interactions being two notable exceptions.7 Despite their different emphases, both have based arguments on a dynamic ontological framework; according to which elements interact and co-evolve. The influence of dualism is nonetheless highly visible in many aspects of media communication study, especially the way major concepts are carved out, and the way they are seen to relate to each other. How concepts are carved out In conceptualizing and analyzing communication processes, Cartesian dualism has in essence provided a one-fits-all, “either-or” solution with no grey area in between. In terms of message transmission, there is the sender/message vs. the receiver; in terms of media reach, there is the local vs. the global; and in terms of media ownership, there is the public vs. the private, etc. Over recent decades, the dualist approach has offered an effective way in teasing and organizing the complex layers of social fabrics surrounding communication activities, and separating them into definable and manageable areas of investigation. But with changes in the media world, new players and concepts have emerged. Take media studies for example: rather than mass media, there are podcasting and social media, while on the other end, “audiences” are phasing out, with users and fans phasing in. What has remained unchanged is the way those at the two ends of the continuum are perceived and treated. The question is whether the distinctions between paired concepts can hold in dynamic communication processes, as they typically involve factors that mutate and transform, blurring boundaries over time. Mass media are still around, but with interactive, multiplatform, and multi-device networks, mediated digital communication, traditional distinctions that were the basis of dichotomizing players in communication processes, are necessarily muddied. The emergence of “prosumers”—users but also themselves producers of digital media messages—is a typical example (Xinaris, 2016). During the 2011 revolution in Egypt, half of those surveyed produced and disseminated video clips from demonstrations (Tufekci & Wilson, 2012). In a study of financial blogs, Saxton and Anker (2013) described bloggers as “actors,” and noted that past research had failed to consider that they are “embedded in complex virtual networks” (p. 1067). The wide reach of digital networks has made them an increasingly important source of information, but also convenient channels for instant, massive distribution of messages and materials. Everyone in the network is as much a receiver as he or she is a communicator. Digital networks are now laying claims of being “constituted by humanity itself”; as Nash suggests, in this new mediated world we are no longer audiences or users, but “interactors” (Nash, 2016, p. 21). A side effect of the either-or model is “selective research,” a tendency for researchers to preoccupy themselves with just one end of the dichotomy, and consequently, inflate its importance. A typical example is the importance that has been attached to media in media studies. Indeed the very fact that research covering the entire range of issues in mass communication processes being labeled “media studies” says it all. In contrast to the level of attention paid to media, the audience—the other concept in the binary pair—has been “assumed,” and the human factor vastly undervalued. Although media effects are read through audiences, as a concept they rarely have a place in the discussion. As Bratich (2005) put it, “the audience is everywhere being studied, but rarely named as such” (p. 261). This media-centric tendency in conceptualizing communication processes has prevented media from being analyzed as a platform, shaped and used by actors at both ends of the process. In addition to the tendency of “selective attention,” it is not uncommon for research focusing on one area to totally ignore discussions and findings from the “opposite camp.” For studies on communication ethics to appear in the reference list of a paper on media accountability is quite unusual. This tendency undermines the fact that paired concepts are often two sides of the same coin in communication processes (Eberwein & Porlezza, 2016, p. 337), and that to obtain a comprehensive picture of the problem, both deserve the researcher’s consideration. In 1999 Kitzinger (1999) noted in her study of HIV/AIDS and child sexual abuse that audiences are active but the media are “not without effect” (Williams, 2003/2010, p. 208). Unfortunately this theoretical perspective did not seem to have struck a chord with subsequent studies either on audiences or media effects. Another “side-effect” of the either-or model is the inclination for researchers to go to the other extreme for a solution when one of the dualist pair repeatedly fails to explain changes or account for variances. This tendency has caused theoretical arguments to oscillate between opposite positions on a given issue. On media effect, for example, the pendulum has swung from great effects to minimal effects (Katz, 1980), powerful media to autonomous audiences, and from utopian hopes to dystopian fears with the birth of almost every new medium (Al-Ghazzi, 2014; Eberwein & Porlezza, 2016, p. 328; Papacharissi, 2010; Williams, 2010, p. 168). Recently we have seen yet another round of investigations into the ways the web changes cultural contexts and systems—education, governments, and businesses (e.g., Dickenson, Hall, & Courduff, 2016). In audience research, theories have continued to shift as their ontological status has changed from the singular object of realist scrutiny to the plural and fugitive (Bratich, 2005), fictional (Hartley, 1987), or discursive constructions (Ang, 1990; Livingstone, 2015, p. 439). After the many twists and turns, it was considered “back to the crossroad” (Livingstone, 1998; Williams, 2010). Lately, the existence of vast amounts of Internet user information has rekindled interest in audience studies (Gray, 2017), but which directions will future research take if such data becomes available to researchers? Before answering the question, we need to examine another Cartesian dualist postulate: the way binary concepts are seen to be related to each other. How binary concepts relate to each other Ontological positions point the way to carve the world; they also prescribe the way elements relate to one another. In a dualist model, a one-way influence is often assumed. The task of researchers is mainly to confirm that such influence exists, not to look beyond it. Despite the prominent role of audience feedback in the Westley-Maclean model of communication (1957), subsequent research has generally failed to include this key element in studying media communication processes. Over recent decades, what is influenced at the receiving end has gone from attitude/behaviour to mental frames, but little has been done to modify the semi-autonomous status of media that enables them to exercise influence on the audience. Content analysis of journal articles found that studies adopting a media-centric view of change often underestimated the complexity of causalities (Stanyer & Mihelj, 2016). Compton and Dyer-Witheford (2014), for example, noted that in analyzing the cause of uprisings in Egypt, digital networks and social media were so heavily fetishized by liberal commentators that Facebook and Twitter—not unemployment, rising food prices or authoritarianism—became the driving force behind the movements. Such propositions often become untenable when the same technologies, used by different people in different ways for different purposes in different societies, were found to have produced different results (Alvares &, Dalhlgren, 2016; Compton & Dyer-Witheford, 2014, p. 1198; Kim & Lee, 2006; Lee, 2014; Liu, 2015; Neuman, Guggenheim, Jan, & Bae, 2014; Vicari, 2014). Also questioning the meaning of looking for a one-way influence are algorithm curation and social media (Pariser, 2011; Thorson & Wells, 2016). Thanks to these mechanisms, systems can now send out materials on the basis of users’ search history. If more of what we receive is supplied according to our own needs and preferences, can we continue discussing “media effect” in the same way as our forefathers did in the cold war era? The numbers of media effect studies are now counted in the thousands and are still growing, but their failure in producing conclusive evidence to warrant a claim of “fait accompli” is begging for explanations. Neuman and Guggenheim (2011, pp. 172–173) suggest that the size of media impacts and their theoretical importance should not be conflated, as mathematically tiny effects can accumulate over time. Katz, on the other hand, has found thousands of television studies as “unsuited” to the task of identifying larger or more enduring effects (Katz, 2009). Technicalities in the design and execution of research plans are key to successes in research endeavours. Yet at this stage—after several decades of investigation on essentially the same issue, one may be tempted to ask why researchers have seldom asked the question—is it possible that we are asking the right question in the wrong way, or has it been the wrong question from the very beginning? The answer will come if the nature of the dualist model is taken into consideration. Two sides of the same coin: Cartesian dualism and mechanism As most thinkers of his time, Descartes was a mechanist. This background is reflected in his mind and body theory in that all matter, including different organs of the body, work according to their own laws. Except for causal interference from the mind, matters proceed deterministically in their own right, with no intrinsic relationship with one other. Mechanism has had varying degrees of influence in different subareas of communication research. But in media communication studies, it has been key to setting the stage for research. Everett Rogers, in his foreword to the third edition of Milestones of Mass Communication Research (Lang, 2013, p. 13; Lowery & DeFleur, 1995), has outlined the basic framework of the field of study as follows: mediated communications as change agents in society, a focus on effects, and social scientific methodology. Of the three, the second is “effects,” but the first also concerns effects, intended influences in bringing changes. Two assumptions are noted within this framework. First, as Lang (2013) had indicated, a view of human societies as “internally stable and even resistant to change” (p. 13) is implied in the strong emphasis on effects. Second, as Rogers argued, it reflects a basic belief in technology determinism. Both mirror the mechanistic nature of Cartesian dualism. Just as the field of media study has outgrown the Lasswellian model, it has long outgrown the framework that Rogers (Lowery & DeFleur, 1995) outlined over 20 years ago. The mechanistic characteristic of media studies has, nonetheless, largely been left undisturbed. It is left untouched because it is only when media communication is conceptualized as a deterministic process that dichotomizing concepts and postulating uni-directional influences become possible. Ontological structures lead us to ask certain questions in certain ways, but not others. There is no denying the contribution that Cartesian dualism has made to the field of study. Equally, there is no denying its inadequacies in providing us with a balanced, comprehensive picture of communication processes; its focus on the value and importance of some selected concepts and dimensions of a problem often misleads researchers in their study design, thus undercutting the validity and applicability of theories. The need for fundamental changes To stop ontological dualism from offsetting efforts to expand the scope of our research and to develop more effective ways of problem-solving, changes are needed in the way we conceptualize communication processes. In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have chosen to build their arguments against the dualist model. Papacharissi (2010/2015), for instance, has successfully demonstrated the irrelevance of treating public/private and reason/emotion as dualist binaries, with one overshadowing the other. In mediatization research (e.g., Block, 2013, p. 261; Couldry, 2012; Krotz, 2007), emphasis was placed on the need to see media shaping and framing of political communication as a man-made process through which humans communicate and construct their world. On network communication, the importance of emotion versus cognition has also gained wider recognition. Shifting the focus from one concept to the other in a binary pair, however, does not safeguard a study from dualist influence, as the effort may produce equally biased results that only serve to perpetuate the model. In studies on emotions for example, Nash (2016) has noted an inherent “denial of rational agency in the formation of a subject” and “in an extreme projection of the “basic emotions” model, change is not even possible” (p. 4). Such distinct division between affect and cognition, he warned, has the potential to replicate a Cartesian mind/body duality that most affect theorists have set out to dissolve (p. 4). Aside from conscious moves away from ontological dualism, the need to contextualize comparative studies has also led to more comprehensive and sophisticated research designs—designs that go well beyond the level of complexity that the dualist framework is best at accommodating. Studying agenda setting in China, for example, was deemed as “meaningless” by some local researchers because with the backing of the state, media not only tell people “what to think about,” they tell people “what to think” (Huang, 2013, p. 48). While such observation spelled out the intentions of media managers, it stopped short of noting the intricacies of media agenda-setting function in a controlled environment. Capturing such intricacies can, in fact, be highly rewarding from a theoretical perspective, but extremely challenging from a methodological perspective, as a good many context-specific factors must be considered.8 These factors add to the complexities of research design and ultimately, difficulties in generalizing study outcomes. Context-specificity alone does not cause fragmentation of the field, but it can aggravate existing problems. Efforts such as those described above have helped enhance the comprehensiveness of our research and pushed for changes in the dualist model, but little was done to its mechanistic nature. The situation explains, at least in part, why endeavors aimed at bringing improvements to the model have sometimes led to its perpetuation. The Lasswell model is now at fault for failing to note feedback in the communication process (Manzoor, 2016, p. 613; Ziegler, 2015, p. 25); can we, or not, make it work in this digital age by simply adding “feedback” to the equation? We are in urgent need now of, not more improvements of the dualist model, but fundamental changes in our approach to study media communication. But how are researchers to contemplate the significance of all these challenges? Out of the “box” and into the future Today, among competing views on the fundamental nature of existence, Cartesian dualism continues to be the dominant underlying ontological framework of scientific and social scientific knowledge—to the extent that it has attained a kind of hegemony. Although the issue was discussed in different terms and contexts, both Heidegger (1976),9 and Pickering (2010) noted the deep-rooted and negative impact of dualism. In knowledge production, Pickering (2010, p. 80) found that dualist separation does not actually hold in practice, and evidence was found in several fields of study, ranging from the heartland of physical science, e.g., cellular automata in mathematics, to areas of greater worldly significance, e.g., the management project for controlling the Mississippi River (p. 60). Yet in his view, none of these have changed the fact that we are in a world in which “the highest status activities both presume and intensify a dualist ontology,” and the same ontology is staged with a growing array of material and social objects as we move through them and interact with them. This, Pickering suggested, is “the reason we tend to approach the next situation from a dualistic stance” (p. 80). Ontological dualism, in this sense, is no longer a dead philosophical terminology, but the way things are seen and thought of. To a large extent, the above analyses explain the difficulties in dealing with the problems derived from ontological dualism in media communication research. But the “hegemonic influence” of dualist frameworks—if it does exist—is conditional rather than absolute. In fact, to suggest a hegemonic relationship between ontological frameworks and those under their influence is not only placing the two parties in another dualist dichotomy, but also overlooks the fact that human beings have always been behind ontological positions—in formulating, debating, altering, and replacing them. Just as accepted paradigms can be modified or revolutionized (Kuhn, 1962), the need for scrutinizing ontological frameworks arises when research activities do not deliver concepts and theories that effectively respond to the needs and changing paces in society. In other words, ontological frameworks are the guidance, but also the outcome of reflections, debates and research efforts, and it is through the same process that they are altered or replaced. Such cases may not occur often, but it is of the utmost importance that the research community recognize them as such if they do. The crucial issue is whether sufficient attention has been paid to the growing gap between what is taking place in the world of communications, and the research works that supposedly help us understand it. In media studies, the existence of such “gaps” is difficult to ignore; a notable example being the way communication processes is conceptualized, i.e., a mechanistic view as reflected in the dualist model vs. an always “on” mentality (Revers, 2015) of digital networks. One may argue that media communication and the human world at large have hardly been as mechanistic and deterministic as Descartes had portrayed in his theories. Cronen (2009) once noted that dualism is “molecular” (p. 67). As it demands independent entities, units of analyses are typically small, so small that our feel for life—and communication for that matter—as “a flow,” must be treated “as an illusion,” so that “[t]he idea of an episode as other than a static frame becomes impossible” (p. 67). Ontological dualism directs us to examine dynamic processes in static frames. Static frames however, rarely reveal the full picture of what moving images are able to show. With digital communication, such a mechanistic view has become even more difficult to sustain. In a study of big data and agenda-setting, Neuman et al. (2014; Wang, 2014) noted that the 24-hour day as a unit of temporal analysis was too long to capture fleeting variations in the communication process. This trend of development is both theoretically and methodologically significant. As changes are taking place by the minute, portraying “the” agenda is more like shooting a moving target. Instead of “media content,” now we talk about “content flows,” and instead of snap-shot survey results, increasingly interests are turned to big data for the analyses of patterns (Neuman et al., 2014; Wang, 2014). To complicate the matter, content flows exhibit no dominant patterns, rather, there are “competing patterns” depending on individual interests, social networks, and the infrastructures of digital communication, as Thorson and Wells (2016, p. 310) warned. A second manifestation of the gap between ontological dualism and digital communication lies in the way elements involved in communication processes are seen as related to one another, i.e., one-way influence vs. network interactions. In the broader spectrum of communication research—especially interpersonal and intercultural communication—interaction is far from being a novel topic of research. Yet in media studies it has often been left out of study designs because of the “one-to-many” nature of mass communication and/or the influence of dualism. The situation is changing. Gradually becoming a driving force in network communication, interactions are receiving increasing attention—among different types of media, between media and media users, and among media users/“interactors.” Their growing importance as a topic of research in media studies has also profound theoretical significance, as conceptualizing interactions as a part of the communication process present a challenge to major assumptions of the dualist model, e.g., dichotomy between contrasting concepts, and presumed superiority of one vs. the other. Most importantly, it challenges the assumption of one-way influence—one that has been at the heart of effect studies in recent decades. As Neumann et al. (2014) pointed out, in studies on agenda-setting, the question “who sets the media agenda” becomes ill-structured when changes are brought about by dynamic interactions among mass and social media. From our brief discussion of research findings on digital media, muddled, fluid, and vigorous communication processes will most likely become a part of our everyday experience, and researchers will be required to move beyond the boundaries of the material and the immaterial and the real and the virtual, while recognizing the “constant oscillation” that takes place among these different worlds (Guzzetti & Lesley, 2016, p. xxv). Such is the era of dynamic communication—everything that Cartesian dualism is not prepared for. An ontological framework, a mode of thinking that underscores a dynamic world view, is urgently needed. Unlike ontological dualism, ontological dynamism has barely existed in the European history of philosophy—aside from Leibniz’s force theory and his and Wolf’s discussions on the properties of monads.10 But as mentioned earlier, the notion of dynamic communication processes has been accepted in some other subareas of communication studies, and lately in studies of digital communication we begin to see signs of a long-overdue breakthrough. Aside from interactivity (Lang, 2013, p. 21; Lang, Potter, & Bolls, 2009), new directions that have been suggested for future research include media environment (Lang, 2013, p. 18), cyclic and transactional exchanges, and mutual articulation (Livingstone, 2015, p. 442). Despite the diversity of the topic areas involved, they have all pointed to a holistic and/or dynamic, rather than a dualist, deterministic and mechanistic view of communication as the future direction. In this context Lang’s remarks on media psychology are especially relevant to our discussion. In view of the crisis of the field, Lang saw the prospect of a solution in studies adopting a psychological approach to studying mass communication. In media psychology for example, communication is seen as an evolutionary development that helps human beings adapt to changes in an unpredictable and unstable environment (Lang, 2013, pp. 18–19; Lang et al. 2009; Rutledge, 2013). Especially worthy of attention is that in this body of research, communication is conceptualized as “interaction between a message and a human embedded in an environment over time” (Lang, 2013, p. 21). Once “interactivity over time” is placed at the center of attention, a dynamic, rather than a mechanistic approach is called for. Although there has been consensus on the future direction of media research, the adoption of a dynamic systems approach in studying media psychology enlightens our quest for an alternative ontological framework. If the most effective way to tackle ontological problems is not necessarily through debating philosophical issues, but also through questions that can lead us to a better understanding of the ever-changing face of media communication, then it is time for us to sketch a dynamic ontological framework that can inspire such questions. As a starting point of discussion, it is suggested here that a dynamic framework for the study of media communication should reflect at least two characteristics. First, it must recognize “change” as a normal state of affairs. Indeed, rather than asking if changes have occurred, it prompts us to ask “to what extent changes have taken place,” as assuming the world and all matters in a state of “absolute rest” go against the principles of nature. The direction and nature of changes, on the other hand, is seldom predetermined or predictable as movements described in Cartesian dualism or Leibniz’ dynamism, yet it is equally rare for them to be totally free or entirely unpredictable. With change and continuity being two sides of the same coin, patterns of change over time emerge as an important area of observation. Second, media need to be seen as a platform used and shaped in a multitude of ways by different actors to become important elements in the workings of social fabrics. As is with the dynamic systems approach, at the centre of attention of this framework is not one-way influence but interactivity. But in addition to traditional questions on the frequencies of interactions and the parties involved, to borrow ideas from other areas of communication research, awaiting our scrutiny are the nature and properties of interaction, e.g., whether they be direct or indirect, and conflicting, contradicting, complimenting, symbiotic, stimulating or mutually-conceiving. More importantly, changes are almost always brought about by interactions among different forces in society. Rather than treating them as “unaccounted variance,” to be explored are the ways such interactions foster change, transformation and evolution in communication processes. Instead of rediscovering that media cast different degrees of influence when used by different people in different contexts for different purposes, putting media back in their social milieu and tracking interactions among various players will likely generate results leading to a more comprehensive picture of the role of media in the lives of their users. Methodologically, a dynamic framework calls for the use of qualitative methods (Tracy, 2015) in capturing the intricacies of spontaneous interactions in media use. On the other hand, to researchers seeking to collect and analyze data that would provide information crucial to our understanding of the dynamics of digital communication processes, measurement and analytical tools such as big data, spatial mapping, and sensory ethnographies can become as, if not more, valuable as traditional quantitative methods that have been popular with effect studies. To contrast mechanism and dynamism we may appear to have reintroduced dualism to the discussion, the purpose here is however not to prescribe another dichotomy or a one-way influence; not all binaries are dualistic. Ideas of conceptualizing media communication as dynamic processes are nothing novel; but when scattered in the literature, such notions tend to be overlooked and sidelined. The absence of new concepts and theories, inconclusive results of research on media effects, increasing fragmentation of the field, and the lack of communication within the research community11 are all indications of obstacles to the healthy growth of the discipline. A dynamic ontological framework will not solve all the problems, but it presents a viable option to researchers. By releasing our inspirations from the rigid framework of dualism and opening up new areas of research, it can be crucial to generating new concepts and theories closer in line with critical issues of the digital era. After all, the task that all researchers face is to devise designs that can best account for the level of complexity involved and at the same time produce useful and generalizable knowledge. To quote Lang (2013, p. 23), the future is scary, but it is also bright. Footnotes 1 In philosophy the term “dualism” has been used in a variety ways. Generally it refers to two fundamental categories of things, but it has also been used to describe the mind and body debate in the history of philosophy. “Cartesian dualism,” on the other hand, more specifically refers to the mind and body theory proposed by Descartes in the 17th century. 2 In this paper the term “ontological dualism” is used to describe the ontological framework of Cartesian dualism. It does not concern what it is “dualist about,” but refers to the features that are shared among binary, philosophical concepts dating back to the early Greek period, e.g., substance/form, objectivity/subjectivity and idealism/materialism. As explained later in the paper, Cartesian dualism is seen to have laid the philosophical ground for scientific discoveries by demythologising the body and setting the physical and the non-physical apart. Descartes is also considered as an important figure in the scientific revolution. 3 The close linkage between Cartesian dualism and sciences/social sciences has led many to believe that qualitative studies are less likely to manifest dualistic thinking. The role of an ontological framework is, however, not as crucial in the choice of methods as is in the research question asked and the way it is framed. Qualitative methods are in a better position to capture mundane, but possibly highly significant details of life that go beyond the confines of a dualistic model; notable examples include two ethnographic studies on audiences: Morley (1980), and lately, Livingstone and Sefton-Green (2011). It is however the research question that determines whether, and to what extent, such details are noted and made sense of. 4 The mind–body theory as proposed by Descartes was faulted, as the presumption that the mind gives orders to the body through the pineal gland was not supported by scientific evidence. The discussions on related issues, e.g., the nature of consciousness, have nonetheless remained lively in areas such as neuroscience and psychology (Searle, 2010). 5 Monism is the other major ontological position in European history of philosophy; notable examples of it include idealism, materialism, and behaviourism. 6 For example, to Plato, “form” was more important than “matter”; to theologians in the medieval period, “the world beyond” was more important than “this world,” whereas to Descartes, “mind” was more important than “body,” etc. 7 Media psychology, a relatively new area of media communication research, seeks to understand the intersection of human behaviour and technology by examining the linkages among technology developer, content producer, content perceptions, and user response in a media system (see Rutledge, 2013). Theories of language and social action, on the other hand, see language as a resource for activities, with communicating information as one of them (see Maynard & Peräkylä, 2003). 8 One such context-specific factor is media users’ skills in “reading-between-the-lines” (Tan, 1993). Such “reading skills” matter, as to those with this ability, the agenda that media set is not the “agenda meant-to-be.” For further discussion on generality and contextuality, see Wang & Huang (2016). As the authors argue in the paper, it is paradoxical to expect scientific research to be fully contextualized while advancing generality, as contextualization seeks to particularize generality. 9 Rather than talking about the hegemony of dualism in knowledge production (Pickering, 2010), Heidegger saw modernity as a project to “enframe” the contemporary world, turning it into “standing reserve” for human projects (Heidegger, 1976; Pickering, 2011, p. 198). From this perspective, dualism is a highly appropriate ontology for hegemonic domination, i.e., enframing. 10 “Monad” is the term that Leibniz and Wolf have used to describe atomic elements. 11 For the lack of theoretical discussion in published works, please see Bryant and Miron (2004), Kamhawi and Weaver (2003), Neuman and Guggenheim (2011) and Potter (2012, p. 12, p. 320). For the lack of exchanges and communication among communication researchers, see Vorderer and Weinmann (2016, p. 211), Neuman and Guggenheim (2011) and Blumler (2015, p. 431). For diversification and fragmentation of the field, see Corner (2015, p. 418), Zelizer (2013) and Hanitzsch (2015). References Al-Ghazzi , O. ( 2014 ). “Citizen journalism” in the Syrian uprising: Problematizing Western narratives in a local context . Communication Theory, 24 ( 4 ), 435 – 454 . doi:10.1111/comt.12047 Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Alvares , C. , & Dalhlgren , P. ( 2016 ). 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Media Communication Research in the Digital Era: Moving Beyond Ontological Dualism

Communication Theory , Volume 28 (3) – Aug 1, 2018

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Abstract

Abstract The proliferation of research in media communication has yet brought about perspectives, concepts or theories that could do justice to changes in the media world. Possible causes of the problem were named, yet few had looked for answers in the way theoretical debates unfolded in the past. An examination of the patterns of advancing debates in media studies shows the influence of ontological dualism. By bringing to light the assumptions underlying the conception of communication processes and questioning their adequacies in providing a comprehensive understanding of the media world, this study teases out the limitations that the mechanistic dualist framework has imposed on research, explains the necessity of fundamental changes, and proposes a dynamic ontological framework as an alternative. The presence of digital media in almost all aspects of life has pushed communication studies to the brink of overexpansion (Corner, 2015). However, it seems that this proliferation of research has yet to bring about the kind of perspective, analytical framework or concept and theory that could do justice to the scope and scale of changes currently taking place in the media world. Recent studies on media content flows, for example, have seen the revival of both the one-step flow (Bennett & Manheim, 2006; Thorson & Wells, 2016) and the two-step flow proposition (Messing & Westwood, 2012; Penney, 2017; Stromer-Galley, 2014; Thorson & Wells, 2016). These views still hold explanatory power in this digital era, but only under certain “conditions”—conditions defined by “proliferating contingencies” (Thorson & Wells, 2016, p. 310) that often lead to opposite conclusions about the new media environment (Donsbach & Mothes, 2012), and hence defy the generalization of findings. Unfortunately, this scenario is not an isolated case. Three decades ago, Wartella and Reeves (1985) had already warned that almost identical questions about effects were recycled each time a new communication technology appeared, from movies and comic books to television and video games. Today the trend persists. After a comprehensive review, Mitchelstein and Boczkowski (2010) concluded that the dominant modes of inquiry on Internet news consumption were characterized by a reliance on traditional conceptual and methodological preferences. More recently, studies on the impact of social media and computer games (e.g., Ferguson, 2017; Neuman & Guggenheim, 2011, p. 170) were found to have followed similar patterns. To add to researchers’ frustrations, the dominant effect model has yet, after decades of painstaking research works, produced solid evidence to support its claims (Lang, 2013, p. 15). The field of study is caught in a predicament on both ends: an ineffective and rapidly outdated research paradigm on one end, and on the other, the risk of “overconnection” (Corner, 2015, p. 417), and further diversification and fragmentation (Boromisza-Habashi, 2013, p. 412; Corner, 2015, p. 418; Hanitzsch, 2015; Vorderer & Weinmann, 2016, p. 211; Waisbord, 2015, 2016; Zelizer, 2013, p. 412) when new topic areas of study emerge and research designs become more sophisticated. New theories have been called for, and diagnoses of the problem have been offered. A number of factors have been named as contributing to the problem: The failures of research—including refined and complex mid-range theories—to add knowledge to the literature (Lang, 2013, p. 14; Potter, 2012, p. 320); the movement away from social science methodology (Baran & Davis, 2013, pp. 350–351; DeFleur, 1998; Lang, 2013, p. 15); the absence of longitudinal studies (Baran & Davis, 2013, p. 351; Katz, 2009); and even the flight of talent away from universities (Baran & Davis, 2013, p. 350). These analyses spoke certain truths, but they have mostly directed hopes for turning the tide to an upgraded version of existing research. One may disagree with Lang’s notion of “discipline in crisis” (Lang, 2013; Perloff, 2013); her observations however, oblige us to reconsider the fundamentals of what has been asked and researched. Can it be that the problem of conceptual inertia has as much to do with the way we advance debates and arguments? It is necessary for us to “think out of the box” in this time of dazzling changes, but are we aware of the existence of a “box,” let alone knowing what it looks like and what limitations it imposes? Before looking for solutions, we need to know how we have arrived where we are today. This investigation begins with an examination of the way media communication was conceptualized and researched, and the issues that have caused concerns in the community. By exposing the assumptions underlying media theories and questioning their adequacies in conceptualizing present day communication processes, this study found that the way theoretical debates unfolded in previous research has clearly reflected the influences of Cartesian dualism,1 the dominant ontological framework underlying scientific and social scientific research.2 Ontological issues are rarely discussed in communication studies or in social scientific research. While ontological frameworks are normally the outcome of metaphysical and philosophical debates, once taken shape, in a given study they and the tacit rules, principles, and preconditions that come with this framework are often assumed and given, rather than examined or challenged, in the process of research. Together ontological frameworks and their rules point to the fundamental categories of things and their relations, hence they have a major role to play in deciding the nature of the question and how it is asked, and entailing certain ways, but not others, in prioritizing, organizing, and navigating thoughts and ideas.3 In terms of the healthy development of an area of study, ontological framework is by no means an innocent third party. In the second part of this study the limitations that Cartesian dualism has posed on communication studies—especially in studying digital communication—are teased out and their implications on future studies are examined. Fundamental changes are called for, as without them efforts to dissolve ontological dualism can lead to its self-perpetuation, and even aggravation of the field’s fragmentation problem. To better capture the essence of media communication in this digital era, an ontological framework that conceptualizes communication as a dynamic, rather than a mechanistic, deterministic process is proposed as a possible alternative to Cartesian dualism. The purpose of this study is not to prescribe an all-around solution to problems, but it is hoped that the discussion will stimulate debates on the need for new perspectives, and help generate concepts and theories more in line with the present day media communication by releasing our inspirations from the limitations of ontological dualism. Ontological framework is certainly not the only factor in determining the way we approach research, however, in neglecting it we will also certainly face difficulties in gaining a clear view of the way ahead. Following the dualistic footprints Born out of concerns over the impact of Nazi propaganda, the traditional model of communication, as depicted by Lasswell (McQuail & Windahl, 1993), has featured a linear process with media/communicator and audiences/consumers forming a dichotomous pair. The way these paired concepts relate to one another was underscored by the question “with what effect,” which assumed a one-way influence of the communicator over the message receiver. Today the scale and scope of media communication research has long outgrown the above model, but the basic framework for analyzing communication processes has largely persisted, especially in studies adopting an empirical approach. Few had noted that the Lasswellian way of conceptualizing the communication process actually reflects a dualist structure and that this structure is still consequential in what our research produces. In European philosophy, the term “dualism” is closely identified with the Cartesian notion of mind and body—generally considered as the dualism “prototype” (Cronen, 2009). According to Descartes, the non-physical mind is categorically different from, and irreducible to, the physical body, but is capable of causing movements in the latter. The theory itself may now be regarded as a long-defunct doctrine by most biologists and philosophers.4 Cartesian dualism, however, is seen to have laid the philosophical ground for scientific discoveries by demythologizing the body and setting the physical and the non-physical apart. What is of special interest here is not the discussion surrounding the validity of Descartes’ claims or the debate on mind and consciousness that follows, but the ontological structure of Cartesian dualism. It not only traces back to debates in the Greek era, but most importantly, is regarded as the underlying ontological position of most scientific and social scientific investigations (e.g., Pickering, 2010). Logical reasoning that dictates the validity of theorems, epistemological criteria that determine the truthfulness of knowledge claims, and ethical principles that distinguish the right from wrong of individual actions all exemplify this binary system of thinking. Compared with binary thinking in other cultural traditions, the type emerging from metaphysical and philosophical debates in Europe is distinctly different in the way the two parts, entities or categories are seen and relate to each other. In contrast to “monism”5 that suggests there is only one single fundamental kind or category of things, according to dualism, the world is divided in two mutually exclusive, opposite, and dichotomous categories with an unbridgeable gap in between. Of the two, one is often regarded as superior and worthier of pursuit.6 Cartesian dualism does not dictate all of the theoretical arguments in social sciences, nor in communication research; studies on media psychology and language and social interactions being two notable exceptions.7 Despite their different emphases, both have based arguments on a dynamic ontological framework; according to which elements interact and co-evolve. The influence of dualism is nonetheless highly visible in many aspects of media communication study, especially the way major concepts are carved out, and the way they are seen to relate to each other. How concepts are carved out In conceptualizing and analyzing communication processes, Cartesian dualism has in essence provided a one-fits-all, “either-or” solution with no grey area in between. In terms of message transmission, there is the sender/message vs. the receiver; in terms of media reach, there is the local vs. the global; and in terms of media ownership, there is the public vs. the private, etc. Over recent decades, the dualist approach has offered an effective way in teasing and organizing the complex layers of social fabrics surrounding communication activities, and separating them into definable and manageable areas of investigation. But with changes in the media world, new players and concepts have emerged. Take media studies for example: rather than mass media, there are podcasting and social media, while on the other end, “audiences” are phasing out, with users and fans phasing in. What has remained unchanged is the way those at the two ends of the continuum are perceived and treated. The question is whether the distinctions between paired concepts can hold in dynamic communication processes, as they typically involve factors that mutate and transform, blurring boundaries over time. Mass media are still around, but with interactive, multiplatform, and multi-device networks, mediated digital communication, traditional distinctions that were the basis of dichotomizing players in communication processes, are necessarily muddied. The emergence of “prosumers”—users but also themselves producers of digital media messages—is a typical example (Xinaris, 2016). During the 2011 revolution in Egypt, half of those surveyed produced and disseminated video clips from demonstrations (Tufekci & Wilson, 2012). In a study of financial blogs, Saxton and Anker (2013) described bloggers as “actors,” and noted that past research had failed to consider that they are “embedded in complex virtual networks” (p. 1067). The wide reach of digital networks has made them an increasingly important source of information, but also convenient channels for instant, massive distribution of messages and materials. Everyone in the network is as much a receiver as he or she is a communicator. Digital networks are now laying claims of being “constituted by humanity itself”; as Nash suggests, in this new mediated world we are no longer audiences or users, but “interactors” (Nash, 2016, p. 21). A side effect of the either-or model is “selective research,” a tendency for researchers to preoccupy themselves with just one end of the dichotomy, and consequently, inflate its importance. A typical example is the importance that has been attached to media in media studies. Indeed the very fact that research covering the entire range of issues in mass communication processes being labeled “media studies” says it all. In contrast to the level of attention paid to media, the audience—the other concept in the binary pair—has been “assumed,” and the human factor vastly undervalued. Although media effects are read through audiences, as a concept they rarely have a place in the discussion. As Bratich (2005) put it, “the audience is everywhere being studied, but rarely named as such” (p. 261). This media-centric tendency in conceptualizing communication processes has prevented media from being analyzed as a platform, shaped and used by actors at both ends of the process. In addition to the tendency of “selective attention,” it is not uncommon for research focusing on one area to totally ignore discussions and findings from the “opposite camp.” For studies on communication ethics to appear in the reference list of a paper on media accountability is quite unusual. This tendency undermines the fact that paired concepts are often two sides of the same coin in communication processes (Eberwein & Porlezza, 2016, p. 337), and that to obtain a comprehensive picture of the problem, both deserve the researcher’s consideration. In 1999 Kitzinger (1999) noted in her study of HIV/AIDS and child sexual abuse that audiences are active but the media are “not without effect” (Williams, 2003/2010, p. 208). Unfortunately this theoretical perspective did not seem to have struck a chord with subsequent studies either on audiences or media effects. Another “side-effect” of the either-or model is the inclination for researchers to go to the other extreme for a solution when one of the dualist pair repeatedly fails to explain changes or account for variances. This tendency has caused theoretical arguments to oscillate between opposite positions on a given issue. On media effect, for example, the pendulum has swung from great effects to minimal effects (Katz, 1980), powerful media to autonomous audiences, and from utopian hopes to dystopian fears with the birth of almost every new medium (Al-Ghazzi, 2014; Eberwein & Porlezza, 2016, p. 328; Papacharissi, 2010; Williams, 2010, p. 168). Recently we have seen yet another round of investigations into the ways the web changes cultural contexts and systems—education, governments, and businesses (e.g., Dickenson, Hall, & Courduff, 2016). In audience research, theories have continued to shift as their ontological status has changed from the singular object of realist scrutiny to the plural and fugitive (Bratich, 2005), fictional (Hartley, 1987), or discursive constructions (Ang, 1990; Livingstone, 2015, p. 439). After the many twists and turns, it was considered “back to the crossroad” (Livingstone, 1998; Williams, 2010). Lately, the existence of vast amounts of Internet user information has rekindled interest in audience studies (Gray, 2017), but which directions will future research take if such data becomes available to researchers? Before answering the question, we need to examine another Cartesian dualist postulate: the way binary concepts are seen to be related to each other. How binary concepts relate to each other Ontological positions point the way to carve the world; they also prescribe the way elements relate to one another. In a dualist model, a one-way influence is often assumed. The task of researchers is mainly to confirm that such influence exists, not to look beyond it. Despite the prominent role of audience feedback in the Westley-Maclean model of communication (1957), subsequent research has generally failed to include this key element in studying media communication processes. Over recent decades, what is influenced at the receiving end has gone from attitude/behaviour to mental frames, but little has been done to modify the semi-autonomous status of media that enables them to exercise influence on the audience. Content analysis of journal articles found that studies adopting a media-centric view of change often underestimated the complexity of causalities (Stanyer & Mihelj, 2016). Compton and Dyer-Witheford (2014), for example, noted that in analyzing the cause of uprisings in Egypt, digital networks and social media were so heavily fetishized by liberal commentators that Facebook and Twitter—not unemployment, rising food prices or authoritarianism—became the driving force behind the movements. Such propositions often become untenable when the same technologies, used by different people in different ways for different purposes in different societies, were found to have produced different results (Alvares &, Dalhlgren, 2016; Compton & Dyer-Witheford, 2014, p. 1198; Kim & Lee, 2006; Lee, 2014; Liu, 2015; Neuman, Guggenheim, Jan, & Bae, 2014; Vicari, 2014). Also questioning the meaning of looking for a one-way influence are algorithm curation and social media (Pariser, 2011; Thorson & Wells, 2016). Thanks to these mechanisms, systems can now send out materials on the basis of users’ search history. If more of what we receive is supplied according to our own needs and preferences, can we continue discussing “media effect” in the same way as our forefathers did in the cold war era? The numbers of media effect studies are now counted in the thousands and are still growing, but their failure in producing conclusive evidence to warrant a claim of “fait accompli” is begging for explanations. Neuman and Guggenheim (2011, pp. 172–173) suggest that the size of media impacts and their theoretical importance should not be conflated, as mathematically tiny effects can accumulate over time. Katz, on the other hand, has found thousands of television studies as “unsuited” to the task of identifying larger or more enduring effects (Katz, 2009). Technicalities in the design and execution of research plans are key to successes in research endeavours. Yet at this stage—after several decades of investigation on essentially the same issue, one may be tempted to ask why researchers have seldom asked the question—is it possible that we are asking the right question in the wrong way, or has it been the wrong question from the very beginning? The answer will come if the nature of the dualist model is taken into consideration. Two sides of the same coin: Cartesian dualism and mechanism As most thinkers of his time, Descartes was a mechanist. This background is reflected in his mind and body theory in that all matter, including different organs of the body, work according to their own laws. Except for causal interference from the mind, matters proceed deterministically in their own right, with no intrinsic relationship with one other. Mechanism has had varying degrees of influence in different subareas of communication research. But in media communication studies, it has been key to setting the stage for research. Everett Rogers, in his foreword to the third edition of Milestones of Mass Communication Research (Lang, 2013, p. 13; Lowery & DeFleur, 1995), has outlined the basic framework of the field of study as follows: mediated communications as change agents in society, a focus on effects, and social scientific methodology. Of the three, the second is “effects,” but the first also concerns effects, intended influences in bringing changes. Two assumptions are noted within this framework. First, as Lang (2013) had indicated, a view of human societies as “internally stable and even resistant to change” (p. 13) is implied in the strong emphasis on effects. Second, as Rogers argued, it reflects a basic belief in technology determinism. Both mirror the mechanistic nature of Cartesian dualism. Just as the field of media study has outgrown the Lasswellian model, it has long outgrown the framework that Rogers (Lowery & DeFleur, 1995) outlined over 20 years ago. The mechanistic characteristic of media studies has, nonetheless, largely been left undisturbed. It is left untouched because it is only when media communication is conceptualized as a deterministic process that dichotomizing concepts and postulating uni-directional influences become possible. Ontological structures lead us to ask certain questions in certain ways, but not others. There is no denying the contribution that Cartesian dualism has made to the field of study. Equally, there is no denying its inadequacies in providing us with a balanced, comprehensive picture of communication processes; its focus on the value and importance of some selected concepts and dimensions of a problem often misleads researchers in their study design, thus undercutting the validity and applicability of theories. The need for fundamental changes To stop ontological dualism from offsetting efforts to expand the scope of our research and to develop more effective ways of problem-solving, changes are needed in the way we conceptualize communication processes. In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have chosen to build their arguments against the dualist model. Papacharissi (2010/2015), for instance, has successfully demonstrated the irrelevance of treating public/private and reason/emotion as dualist binaries, with one overshadowing the other. In mediatization research (e.g., Block, 2013, p. 261; Couldry, 2012; Krotz, 2007), emphasis was placed on the need to see media shaping and framing of political communication as a man-made process through which humans communicate and construct their world. On network communication, the importance of emotion versus cognition has also gained wider recognition. Shifting the focus from one concept to the other in a binary pair, however, does not safeguard a study from dualist influence, as the effort may produce equally biased results that only serve to perpetuate the model. In studies on emotions for example, Nash (2016) has noted an inherent “denial of rational agency in the formation of a subject” and “in an extreme projection of the “basic emotions” model, change is not even possible” (p. 4). Such distinct division between affect and cognition, he warned, has the potential to replicate a Cartesian mind/body duality that most affect theorists have set out to dissolve (p. 4). Aside from conscious moves away from ontological dualism, the need to contextualize comparative studies has also led to more comprehensive and sophisticated research designs—designs that go well beyond the level of complexity that the dualist framework is best at accommodating. Studying agenda setting in China, for example, was deemed as “meaningless” by some local researchers because with the backing of the state, media not only tell people “what to think about,” they tell people “what to think” (Huang, 2013, p. 48). While such observation spelled out the intentions of media managers, it stopped short of noting the intricacies of media agenda-setting function in a controlled environment. Capturing such intricacies can, in fact, be highly rewarding from a theoretical perspective, but extremely challenging from a methodological perspective, as a good many context-specific factors must be considered.8 These factors add to the complexities of research design and ultimately, difficulties in generalizing study outcomes. Context-specificity alone does not cause fragmentation of the field, but it can aggravate existing problems. Efforts such as those described above have helped enhance the comprehensiveness of our research and pushed for changes in the dualist model, but little was done to its mechanistic nature. The situation explains, at least in part, why endeavors aimed at bringing improvements to the model have sometimes led to its perpetuation. The Lasswell model is now at fault for failing to note feedback in the communication process (Manzoor, 2016, p. 613; Ziegler, 2015, p. 25); can we, or not, make it work in this digital age by simply adding “feedback” to the equation? We are in urgent need now of, not more improvements of the dualist model, but fundamental changes in our approach to study media communication. But how are researchers to contemplate the significance of all these challenges? Out of the “box” and into the future Today, among competing views on the fundamental nature of existence, Cartesian dualism continues to be the dominant underlying ontological framework of scientific and social scientific knowledge—to the extent that it has attained a kind of hegemony. Although the issue was discussed in different terms and contexts, both Heidegger (1976),9 and Pickering (2010) noted the deep-rooted and negative impact of dualism. In knowledge production, Pickering (2010, p. 80) found that dualist separation does not actually hold in practice, and evidence was found in several fields of study, ranging from the heartland of physical science, e.g., cellular automata in mathematics, to areas of greater worldly significance, e.g., the management project for controlling the Mississippi River (p. 60). Yet in his view, none of these have changed the fact that we are in a world in which “the highest status activities both presume and intensify a dualist ontology,” and the same ontology is staged with a growing array of material and social objects as we move through them and interact with them. This, Pickering suggested, is “the reason we tend to approach the next situation from a dualistic stance” (p. 80). Ontological dualism, in this sense, is no longer a dead philosophical terminology, but the way things are seen and thought of. To a large extent, the above analyses explain the difficulties in dealing with the problems derived from ontological dualism in media communication research. But the “hegemonic influence” of dualist frameworks—if it does exist—is conditional rather than absolute. In fact, to suggest a hegemonic relationship between ontological frameworks and those under their influence is not only placing the two parties in another dualist dichotomy, but also overlooks the fact that human beings have always been behind ontological positions—in formulating, debating, altering, and replacing them. Just as accepted paradigms can be modified or revolutionized (Kuhn, 1962), the need for scrutinizing ontological frameworks arises when research activities do not deliver concepts and theories that effectively respond to the needs and changing paces in society. In other words, ontological frameworks are the guidance, but also the outcome of reflections, debates and research efforts, and it is through the same process that they are altered or replaced. Such cases may not occur often, but it is of the utmost importance that the research community recognize them as such if they do. The crucial issue is whether sufficient attention has been paid to the growing gap between what is taking place in the world of communications, and the research works that supposedly help us understand it. In media studies, the existence of such “gaps” is difficult to ignore; a notable example being the way communication processes is conceptualized, i.e., a mechanistic view as reflected in the dualist model vs. an always “on” mentality (Revers, 2015) of digital networks. One may argue that media communication and the human world at large have hardly been as mechanistic and deterministic as Descartes had portrayed in his theories. Cronen (2009) once noted that dualism is “molecular” (p. 67). As it demands independent entities, units of analyses are typically small, so small that our feel for life—and communication for that matter—as “a flow,” must be treated “as an illusion,” so that “[t]he idea of an episode as other than a static frame becomes impossible” (p. 67). Ontological dualism directs us to examine dynamic processes in static frames. Static frames however, rarely reveal the full picture of what moving images are able to show. With digital communication, such a mechanistic view has become even more difficult to sustain. In a study of big data and agenda-setting, Neuman et al. (2014; Wang, 2014) noted that the 24-hour day as a unit of temporal analysis was too long to capture fleeting variations in the communication process. This trend of development is both theoretically and methodologically significant. As changes are taking place by the minute, portraying “the” agenda is more like shooting a moving target. Instead of “media content,” now we talk about “content flows,” and instead of snap-shot survey results, increasingly interests are turned to big data for the analyses of patterns (Neuman et al., 2014; Wang, 2014). To complicate the matter, content flows exhibit no dominant patterns, rather, there are “competing patterns” depending on individual interests, social networks, and the infrastructures of digital communication, as Thorson and Wells (2016, p. 310) warned. A second manifestation of the gap between ontological dualism and digital communication lies in the way elements involved in communication processes are seen as related to one another, i.e., one-way influence vs. network interactions. In the broader spectrum of communication research—especially interpersonal and intercultural communication—interaction is far from being a novel topic of research. Yet in media studies it has often been left out of study designs because of the “one-to-many” nature of mass communication and/or the influence of dualism. The situation is changing. Gradually becoming a driving force in network communication, interactions are receiving increasing attention—among different types of media, between media and media users, and among media users/“interactors.” Their growing importance as a topic of research in media studies has also profound theoretical significance, as conceptualizing interactions as a part of the communication process present a challenge to major assumptions of the dualist model, e.g., dichotomy between contrasting concepts, and presumed superiority of one vs. the other. Most importantly, it challenges the assumption of one-way influence—one that has been at the heart of effect studies in recent decades. As Neumann et al. (2014) pointed out, in studies on agenda-setting, the question “who sets the media agenda” becomes ill-structured when changes are brought about by dynamic interactions among mass and social media. From our brief discussion of research findings on digital media, muddled, fluid, and vigorous communication processes will most likely become a part of our everyday experience, and researchers will be required to move beyond the boundaries of the material and the immaterial and the real and the virtual, while recognizing the “constant oscillation” that takes place among these different worlds (Guzzetti & Lesley, 2016, p. xxv). Such is the era of dynamic communication—everything that Cartesian dualism is not prepared for. An ontological framework, a mode of thinking that underscores a dynamic world view, is urgently needed. Unlike ontological dualism, ontological dynamism has barely existed in the European history of philosophy—aside from Leibniz’s force theory and his and Wolf’s discussions on the properties of monads.10 But as mentioned earlier, the notion of dynamic communication processes has been accepted in some other subareas of communication studies, and lately in studies of digital communication we begin to see signs of a long-overdue breakthrough. Aside from interactivity (Lang, 2013, p. 21; Lang, Potter, & Bolls, 2009), new directions that have been suggested for future research include media environment (Lang, 2013, p. 18), cyclic and transactional exchanges, and mutual articulation (Livingstone, 2015, p. 442). Despite the diversity of the topic areas involved, they have all pointed to a holistic and/or dynamic, rather than a dualist, deterministic and mechanistic view of communication as the future direction. In this context Lang’s remarks on media psychology are especially relevant to our discussion. In view of the crisis of the field, Lang saw the prospect of a solution in studies adopting a psychological approach to studying mass communication. In media psychology for example, communication is seen as an evolutionary development that helps human beings adapt to changes in an unpredictable and unstable environment (Lang, 2013, pp. 18–19; Lang et al. 2009; Rutledge, 2013). Especially worthy of attention is that in this body of research, communication is conceptualized as “interaction between a message and a human embedded in an environment over time” (Lang, 2013, p. 21). Once “interactivity over time” is placed at the center of attention, a dynamic, rather than a mechanistic approach is called for. Although there has been consensus on the future direction of media research, the adoption of a dynamic systems approach in studying media psychology enlightens our quest for an alternative ontological framework. If the most effective way to tackle ontological problems is not necessarily through debating philosophical issues, but also through questions that can lead us to a better understanding of the ever-changing face of media communication, then it is time for us to sketch a dynamic ontological framework that can inspire such questions. As a starting point of discussion, it is suggested here that a dynamic framework for the study of media communication should reflect at least two characteristics. First, it must recognize “change” as a normal state of affairs. Indeed, rather than asking if changes have occurred, it prompts us to ask “to what extent changes have taken place,” as assuming the world and all matters in a state of “absolute rest” go against the principles of nature. The direction and nature of changes, on the other hand, is seldom predetermined or predictable as movements described in Cartesian dualism or Leibniz’ dynamism, yet it is equally rare for them to be totally free or entirely unpredictable. With change and continuity being two sides of the same coin, patterns of change over time emerge as an important area of observation. Second, media need to be seen as a platform used and shaped in a multitude of ways by different actors to become important elements in the workings of social fabrics. As is with the dynamic systems approach, at the centre of attention of this framework is not one-way influence but interactivity. But in addition to traditional questions on the frequencies of interactions and the parties involved, to borrow ideas from other areas of communication research, awaiting our scrutiny are the nature and properties of interaction, e.g., whether they be direct or indirect, and conflicting, contradicting, complimenting, symbiotic, stimulating or mutually-conceiving. More importantly, changes are almost always brought about by interactions among different forces in society. Rather than treating them as “unaccounted variance,” to be explored are the ways such interactions foster change, transformation and evolution in communication processes. Instead of rediscovering that media cast different degrees of influence when used by different people in different contexts for different purposes, putting media back in their social milieu and tracking interactions among various players will likely generate results leading to a more comprehensive picture of the role of media in the lives of their users. Methodologically, a dynamic framework calls for the use of qualitative methods (Tracy, 2015) in capturing the intricacies of spontaneous interactions in media use. On the other hand, to researchers seeking to collect and analyze data that would provide information crucial to our understanding of the dynamics of digital communication processes, measurement and analytical tools such as big data, spatial mapping, and sensory ethnographies can become as, if not more, valuable as traditional quantitative methods that have been popular with effect studies. To contrast mechanism and dynamism we may appear to have reintroduced dualism to the discussion, the purpose here is however not to prescribe another dichotomy or a one-way influence; not all binaries are dualistic. Ideas of conceptualizing media communication as dynamic processes are nothing novel; but when scattered in the literature, such notions tend to be overlooked and sidelined. The absence of new concepts and theories, inconclusive results of research on media effects, increasing fragmentation of the field, and the lack of communication within the research community11 are all indications of obstacles to the healthy growth of the discipline. A dynamic ontological framework will not solve all the problems, but it presents a viable option to researchers. By releasing our inspirations from the rigid framework of dualism and opening up new areas of research, it can be crucial to generating new concepts and theories closer in line with critical issues of the digital era. After all, the task that all researchers face is to devise designs that can best account for the level of complexity involved and at the same time produce useful and generalizable knowledge. To quote Lang (2013, p. 23), the future is scary, but it is also bright. Footnotes 1 In philosophy the term “dualism” has been used in a variety ways. Generally it refers to two fundamental categories of things, but it has also been used to describe the mind and body debate in the history of philosophy. “Cartesian dualism,” on the other hand, more specifically refers to the mind and body theory proposed by Descartes in the 17th century. 2 In this paper the term “ontological dualism” is used to describe the ontological framework of Cartesian dualism. It does not concern what it is “dualist about,” but refers to the features that are shared among binary, philosophical concepts dating back to the early Greek period, e.g., substance/form, objectivity/subjectivity and idealism/materialism. As explained later in the paper, Cartesian dualism is seen to have laid the philosophical ground for scientific discoveries by demythologising the body and setting the physical and the non-physical apart. Descartes is also considered as an important figure in the scientific revolution. 3 The close linkage between Cartesian dualism and sciences/social sciences has led many to believe that qualitative studies are less likely to manifest dualistic thinking. The role of an ontological framework is, however, not as crucial in the choice of methods as is in the research question asked and the way it is framed. Qualitative methods are in a better position to capture mundane, but possibly highly significant details of life that go beyond the confines of a dualistic model; notable examples include two ethnographic studies on audiences: Morley (1980), and lately, Livingstone and Sefton-Green (2011). It is however the research question that determines whether, and to what extent, such details are noted and made sense of. 4 The mind–body theory as proposed by Descartes was faulted, as the presumption that the mind gives orders to the body through the pineal gland was not supported by scientific evidence. The discussions on related issues, e.g., the nature of consciousness, have nonetheless remained lively in areas such as neuroscience and psychology (Searle, 2010). 5 Monism is the other major ontological position in European history of philosophy; notable examples of it include idealism, materialism, and behaviourism. 6 For example, to Plato, “form” was more important than “matter”; to theologians in the medieval period, “the world beyond” was more important than “this world,” whereas to Descartes, “mind” was more important than “body,” etc. 7 Media psychology, a relatively new area of media communication research, seeks to understand the intersection of human behaviour and technology by examining the linkages among technology developer, content producer, content perceptions, and user response in a media system (see Rutledge, 2013). Theories of language and social action, on the other hand, see language as a resource for activities, with communicating information as one of them (see Maynard & Peräkylä, 2003). 8 One such context-specific factor is media users’ skills in “reading-between-the-lines” (Tan, 1993). Such “reading skills” matter, as to those with this ability, the agenda that media set is not the “agenda meant-to-be.” For further discussion on generality and contextuality, see Wang & Huang (2016). As the authors argue in the paper, it is paradoxical to expect scientific research to be fully contextualized while advancing generality, as contextualization seeks to particularize generality. 9 Rather than talking about the hegemony of dualism in knowledge production (Pickering, 2010), Heidegger saw modernity as a project to “enframe” the contemporary world, turning it into “standing reserve” for human projects (Heidegger, 1976; Pickering, 2011, p. 198). 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Communication TheoryOxford University Press

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