The joy of being a post-positivist

One of the things that I really like about the field of communication (specifically as an academic discipline) is that there is no one overarching paradigm1 that guides us all as we do our research and analyses of texts. This term I’ve been taking a course with Dr. Pat Curtin that the SOJC calls “Proseminar 1A,” which is essentially a broad overview of all of these paradigms and the various theories that came out of each of them.

I discovered quite early on that I fall into the post-positivist camp; indeed, I could easily be called a “post-positivist critical realist.”2 This way of thinking about the world resonates strongly with me, as I do sometimes refer to myself as a “science-ist” (my term for someone who is extremely enthusiastic about science but isn’t a professional scientist–and I mean the hard sciences here, not social science), and the research methods that I am interested in are all empirical and typically quantitative.

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Peirce and pragmati(ci)sm

As many folks are well aware, I spent the bulk of the past decade working for big media in New York, specifically for a media source whose ideology I don’t personally subscribe to. As you might imagine, that led to a lot of mistaken assumptions and uncomfortable conversations with folks over the years, and so my general policy nowadays is to try and not broadcast (pardon the pun) my politics unless a specific situation calls for discussion of the issues.

But two things coming together in the next several days made me decide to temporarily rescind that policy in order to write this post.  First, as most Americans are aware, Election Day is on Tuesday, and I, for one, will be glad to see it come and go (I find election coverage to be trying and tedious). But second, I just finished reading a chapter from Philosophical Approaches to Communication by Claude Mangion on Charles Sanders Peirce (actually pronounced like “purse”), who is generally considered to be one of the founding fathers of semiotics, or the study of signs.

While I was familiar with semiotics and Peirce’s writings on that subject from my time at The New School, I was not familiar with his ideas on pragmatism (which he renamed “pragmaticism” because of some disagreements he had with how the original word was being used by scholars of the day).  These ideas were presented in his works The Fixation of Belief, written in 1877, and How to Make Our Ideas Clear, which was published in 1878.  As Mangion puts it, “Pragmaticism forged a link between the understanding of a concept and the consequences of that concept. To understand a concept, or to know what it means, entails that it has some observable effect” (2011, 50). The idea is that pragmaticism is intended to help us sort out the truth (effects support the truth; falsehoods run counter to the observable effects).

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