The joy of being a post-positivist

Normal curve

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.

However, there are still many, many scholars out there who fall more comfortably into the post-modernist camp. There are many different areas that could, in one sense or another, be described as post-modernist; in this paradigm, theories aren’t intended to be predictive in the way that they are for post-positivists. Instead, theories are more like lenses–ways of looking at “texts” (though this term applies to movies, TV shows, etc.–essentially any communicated message)–and the output can be quite controversial. In some cases, theorists have a particular agenda and actually seek to (philosophically) deconstruct or destroy the existing hegemony, such as with queer theory.

One of the hallmarks of qualitative post-modernist analysis is that it can oftentimes be so dense as to be practically unreadable, particularly for those of us who really would like some numbers and maybe a nice chart to help organize thoughts. For example, the writings of Homi Bhabha, who is a leading post-colonial theorist (which is interesting, but again, I have no practical use for it in my own work), are nearly incomprehensible to me:

The address of the ideological formation must be thought in that “temporality” that gives the practice of language symbolic access to the social movement of the political imaginary. There is a continual tension between the spatial incommensurability of the articulation of cultural differences and the temporal non-synchronicity of signification as they attempt to speak, quite literally, in terms of each other… for Stuart Hall the multi-accentual sign of discursive ideology (as he calls it) becomes in another site–in the contemporary politics of communities and race–the multivalent subject of the enunciation of what Stuart Hall calls “new ethnicities,” or what Marxism Today, the CPGB journal, calls “New Times.” It is the ambivalence and liminality enacted in the enunciative present of human articulation (C. Taylor, 1985) that results in the signs and symbols of cultural difference being conjugated (not conjoined or complemented) through the interactive temporality of signification.3

Someone please pass me the Advil… I have a headache. While I grasp the basic concepts of post-colonial thought, this paragraph (plucked at random, honestly) from this piece is so opaque that I would have to use the Oxford English Dictionary and a notepad (plus a bottle of scotch) to make any real sense of it.

But that’s OK. Bhabha is renowned for his take on this aspect of cultural studies, and we’re better because of it. There is no “competition” between he and I (and thank goodness, because I’m pretty sure he’d win without so much as lifting a finger); my world is filled with surveys, statistics, numbers and observable phenomena. And that’s the way I like it.

  1. For more on the idea of paradigms as I am referring to them, see The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.
  2. Here is an excellent explanation of what a post-positivist is, and how post-positivism differs from plain old positivism, which really doesn’t exist much anymore.
  3. This is an excerpt from Bhabha’s piece entitled “Postcolonial Authority and Postmodern Guilt.”