“Social science, which is generally regarded as including psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics and political science, consists of the disciplined and systematic study of society and its institutions, and of how and why people behave as they do, both as individuals and in groups within society. At a minimum it would appear that to be “scientific” entails a systematic and disciplined method of acquiring knowledge, and that knowledge must be verifiable knowledge.
So, we enter a problem area at the outset for it may be argued that society, its institutions and social relationships are not susceptible to scientific study, and that the methods of the natural sciences should not be applied to social phenomena. That the terms “social” and “scientific” may not sit comfortably together was illustrated by the decision of the British
Government in the early nineteen eighties to change the name of the Social Science Research Council (which included mass communication research in its remit) to the Economic and Social Research Council. The message seemed to be: if it’s social it can’t be scientific!” (J.D. Halloran, Social Science, communication research and the Third World, The humanistic affinity of social science needs to be recognized, as do its overlaps with philosophy, law, geography and literary criticism, but even amongst those who consider themselves to be social scientists, we are likely to find many different approaches to the study of the media and communications. As we shall see later, these may range from those who strive to be scientific, adopting or adapting models from the natural sciences, to those who, in studying the same subjects, rely more on imagination and insight unfettered, as they see it, by scientific paraphernalia. Just to complicate matters, there are also those who attempt to blend the two approaches.
Who and what should we include, then, in our overview of the social scientific contribution to mass communication research? My approach is inclusive rather than exclusive, although selections and preferences will become obvious in the course of the following discussion. The unit does not set out to provide a comprehensive and balanced history of mass communication research (this is the task of Module 1 as a whole). My main purpose is to draw attention to and describe how social scientists have studied the media and the communication process, and to examine the various factors – economic, political, cultural and disciplinary – which have facilitated or impeded the development and maintenance of these different approaches.
Although our focus is on social science, social scientists are not the only scholars with a contribution to make to a debate which certainly pre-dates the advent of social science. The debate about the media and their influence and role in society has been carried on by literary critics, social philosophers, moralists, artists and educators who, judging from their comments, often feel that the social scientists are so preoccupied with research techniques and methodological devices that their works lack immediate social relevance, tending to concentrate only on the questions for which they have the `scientific’ means at their disposal to answer rather than the questions which are the most interesting and important. The social scientists in turn query the usefulness of evidence produced without the benefit of scientific approaches and criticize what they consider to be the undisciplined nature of the generalizations, interpretations and speculations which abound in this field