New term, new ideas

Well, a brand new term has begun here at the University of Oregon, and just two days in I’m already encountering nifty little nuggets of wisdom and information that I’d never encountered or considered before. (Quick side note that is directly related to this: I’m taking four courses this term–yikes–so my postings here through March may be even more infrequent than usual, but let’s hope that isn’t the case.)

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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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Contemplating Kuhn

For those of us who were just admitted to the University of Oregon for this term, our classes start tomorrow after a long and tiring week of orientation meetings and activities.  Those of us who are embarking on the (newly renamed) Media Studies PhD program in the School of Journalism and Communication will be meeting together for the first time for a course called Proseminar IA, which is a broad overview of the major theories and schools of thought within the realm of communication and media.

Our first assignment for the class was to read and react to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn. This was my first exposure to Kuhn’s work; for those of you who are unfamiliar with the man, he was a linguistics and philosophy professor at MIT (he died in 1996), and his specialty was science history.  The book, as the back cover puts it, “challeng[es] long-standing linear notions of scientific progress [as he argues] that transformative ideas do not arise from the day-to-day, gradual process of experimentation and data accumulation, but that the revolutions in science… occur outside of ‘normal science,’ as he call[s] it.”

In other words, Kuhn has a big problem with the fact that scientists discard disproven notions as progress marches on; he would prefer more reflection on how we got here.  The end.

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