Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Thinking About Theory

Anticipating a COMM 101 conversation about communication theory, I'm playing around with a graphical display to help illustrate how theories work in a most introductory way.

Theory, as I will elaborate in class, may be likened to a lens upon the world that places some phenomena in sharp relief while obscuring others. I'll admit that Em Griffin (author of the textbook I assigned for the class) prefers another analogy, fearing that the notion of theory-as-lens diminishes communication research into a kind of determinism: "I use this lens, I see this thing. No need for actual interpretation."

It's a fair critique.

Yet I hold that theory-as-lens is useful for students first struggling to make sense of just what they're supposed to do in class: apply theories (and their respective methods) to specific artifacts of communication and see things they may not otherwise see.

Eventually students learn - we all do - that the theory is not the point, just as the map is not the territory. We don't want theories to merely confirm what we already assume to be true. We want theories to awaken us to things that would otherwise be obscured by the noise of data overload. At the same time, though, I want students to understand that theories are choices to see the world in a certain way. That alone is worth a moment's reflection.

So we begin with some low-end kinetic typography, which involves exporting a Keynote show (employing the "magic move" slide transition) into a Quicktime video - and subsequently uploading the thing to YouTube. With this technique I attempt to demonstrate how a researcher might first see some phenomenon of communication: an assemblage of texts (words, sounds, images, whatever) without any particular meaning. The texts might be randomly assembled or logically ordered (and, yes, that assemblage is a kind of meaning). But they do not apparently mean anything special.

This example demonstrates a test-theory of the most basic sort: "If I smile, people will smile back. If I frown, people will frown in return." My theory's method calls for me to scrutinize the eyes and the mouth of a person with whom I'm interacting. Doing so, I am inclined to ignore seemingly irrelevant variables, stuff like skin color or whether my subject ate garlic for lunch. As I smile, I focus only on the pertinent variables; the others shrink. And what do I see? A smile! Same result with a frown.

One final element of this example calls for us to consider how theories can alter what we see, not just highlighting certain phenomena but altering them to accommodate our expectations. Thus in the second half of the video, the texts that comprise my observation actually shift their positions to reveal an even more obvious pattern.

With this example I hope to introduce a basic perspective on theory as powerful but also potentially dangerous. Used correctly, theories highlight what we might miss in the buzz of everyday conversation. Abused, theories can alter the texts we read so drastically that we might as well not bother looking in the first place.

No comments: