I’m currently working on an explication project - one of many, it appears, in the field of communication these days… Having read Chaffee (1991), Eveland (2003), Hempel (1952), among others, and reflecting on numerous seminar discussions about “communication as a discipline” I’m bothered by two related issues.
It seems to be non-controversial to say that in order for the scientific discipline to progress (in a global sense), the field needs to have an integrated network of knowledge that connects concepts in one corner of the field with concepts in another, and connects this network with concepts from other fields, producing a coherent and integrated body of knowledge that scholars can then use to build theory. Many of the communication field’s core concepts, however, appear to be as loose as the words in everyday language, if not worse. Some examples: Where does “medium” stop and “channel” begin? What is “communication”? Where does “mass” communication stop and “interpersonal” communication begin? What is “opinion leadership”? What is “media use”? Where does “hard news” end and “infotainment” begin? Where does “infotainment” end and “entertainment” begin? What is a “blog”? What is “user-generated content”?
How can the field of communication consider itself a science when even the most core and basic of its concepts are defined so imprecisely (admittedly, political science, sociology, psychology, and other fields have the same problem)? How can we advance knowledge through replication, if different studies use different “shades” of the same concepts, and predictably, have divergent results? This is one issue.
The second issue has the following premise: It also seams to be non-controversial that allowing one to tweak the IVs to make them more appropriate to the study’s DVs of interest appears to be reasonable. And this, perhaps, is one of the reasons why some of the above-mentioned concepts may have been conceptualized and operationalized inconsistently.
So, on the one hand, we are hindered as a field if our core concepts are not uniform and consistent in how they are used. On the other hand, we are hindered if we are consistent in how we use the concepts (if we let the “it-depends-on-what-your-DV-is” philosophy to allow us to tweak concepts behind the IVs). Is the only thing we can/should do is to define any concept the way we want to define it, explain how and why we did it, and move on with the study? This does not seem to be a very satisfying answer. Is there a Solomon solution to how we should handle this that is practical, intellectually honest, and conducive to theory building? Clearly, I don’t have any good answers. Also, do these issues bother anyone? Please comment with your thoughts.