Monday, September 27, 2010

Answers to unanswerable questions? Q&A with Age of Engagement

Here are a few excerpts from a Q&A I did with frequent collaborator Matt Nisbet over at Big Think's Age of Engagement. It deals with the need for communication researchers (and social scientists more broadly) to grapple with the big, sloppy and potentially unanswerable questions of our time.  And of course there is no magic bullet and potentially not even a solution on the near horizon for many of these questions. But vanishing voters, an emerging class system of illiterate and literate publics, and the increasingly politicized debates surrounding emerging technologies highlight the urgency for us to get our hands dirty.
What are the hot topics and trends in political communication research today?
Most recent trends in political communication research have been dictated by the tectonic shifts in how politics is communicated and the issues that we as a society are facing. What used to be the “mass” in mass communication, for instance, has morphed into different publics that generate, exchange, and use content in ways that were unimaginable just a decade ago. And with global warming, synthetic biology or stem cell research, we have seen issues move to the forefront of political discourse that have the potential to bring long-term and far-reaching changes for almost all aspects of people’s daily lives.

Last year there was a proposal to cut funding for research in political science.  It prompted a debate over whether the type of political communication studies dominating the journals had lost sight of the "big questions" facing the contemporary media and political system.  What is your view on this debate?

Many of the big questions that we face as a society – energy independence, global warming, or an increasingly polarized electorate – require answers that transcend the boundaries of a single field or discipline. This is particularly challenging for a young field, such as political communication, that continues to struggle with its identity and its desire to compete on an even playing field with much larger disciplines, such as psychology and political science. And if we are not careful, we may follow these disciplines down some dead ends.
A good example is the debate surrounding Republican Senator Tom Coburn’s proposal in October 2009 to prohibit the National Science Foundation from “wasting any federal research funding on political science projects.” Coburn, of course, used the label “political science” but targeted social science much more broadly. And his comments rekindled an old debate among political scientists about incremental disciplinary research versus big questions. Cornell’s Peter Katzenstein summarized this intra-disciplinary dilemma best: “Graduate students discussing their field ... often speak in terms of ‘an interesting puzzle,’ a small intellectual conundrum... that tests the ingenuity of the solver, rather than the large, sloppy and unmanageable problems that occur in real life.” Interestingly, President Obama has prioritized the search for answers to many of these supposedly sloppy, unmanageable problems, ranging from mandates for a green economy, to climate change, stem cell research and global warming.  All of these issues relate to the increasingly blurring lines between science, politics, society – and of course, political communication. These are the same areas where most societal debates of the next 50 years will take place. And unless we as political communication researchers and educators find a way to make both scholarly and public contributions to these conversations, we will increasingly be marginalized as a discipline.

In recent years, you've applied expertise in political communication research to look at questions at the intersection of science and society such as nanotechnology.  What are you finding about how the public reaches judgments and forms opinions about controversial areas of science?
Nanotechnology is one of the most interesting emerging technologies we have seen in a while, and one with implications for almost any area of political communication. The U.S. and China are in the middle of a race for global leadership in research productivity and patenting. At the same time, the over 1,000 products that are already on the consumer end market have raised questions about lagging regulatory frameworks and consumer protection. And some of these policy debates are beginning to trickle down to mainstream news outlets, amplified by various interest groups and other players in the policy arena.  Our most recent research is tapping some of these dynamics, and particularly the resulting dangers of creating widening gaps between educational elites and less informed citizens with respect to grasping and capitalizing on the benefits of this new technology early on.
 The full Q&A can be found here.