Academic journal article Communication Research Trends

The Media, Culture, and Religion Perspective: Discovering a Theory and Methodology for Studying Media and Religion

Academic journal article Communication Research Trends

The Media, Culture, and Religion Perspective: Discovering a Theory and Methodology for Studying Media and Religion

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The cultural studies analysis of the media has now become a dominant paradigm of communication research, and the "Media, Religion, and Culture" focus is a central paradigm in research on religious media. For example, the biannual international conference on "Media, Religion, and Culture" usually draws from 300 to 600 people from around the world, virtually all carrying on research on media and religion from a cultural studies perspective. The cultural studies approach recognizes the importance of so-called "administrative research" used by broadcasters to measure the reach and effectiveness of programming, but argues that quantitative effects research really does not answer the central questions of religious media.

Religion is a personal response, seeking meaning in life and in one's universe. Religious expression is generally found within institutional religion, but the formal creed, rituals, devotions, and moral codes do not exhaust the personal experience of religion. The central question of the cultural studies approach is concerned with how individuals in groups use media to construct religious meaning in life and how this religious meaning relates to many other aspects of human life. This approach typically draws its theories and methodologies, not from psychology, functionalist sociology, or quantitative analysis, but from cultural anthropology, philosophy, literary studies, drama, and history. The methods of research are no less rigorous, but these are much closer to a tradition of humanities than to behavioral sciences

Until the 1970s virtually all research on media and religion was attempting to answer the questions of religious broadcasters as to what effects they were having. Most religious programs claimed to be having large audiences-impressed with what one can do with the media compared to the Sunday sermon-and they generally claimed to be "converting " many people. Others were skeptical, and the research was brought in to settle this kind of dispute. Gradually, however, researchers moved away from these "effects" questions to how people are creating meaning from media ... and many other sources. How and why did this move to a new set of questions in research on religious media come about? The present essay will explore this question.

A. Effects studies-background

From the time the 1920s-era Payne Studies concluded that the "impact" of film depended very much on family background, the subjective cultural background, and other factors influencing the subjective interpretation of the meaning of the film (in Rowland, 1983, pp. 92-99), media researchers felt that they had to use quantitative, objective methods to show the positive or negative effects of media in order to get action by governments or other public institutions. One of the typical examples was the attempt to devise an "objective" measuring scale of violent content which rated violence from the low point on the scale of a heated discussion to the high point of a bloody murder. The researchers then attempted to show a direct correlation between the level of violent content and aggressive behavior of audiences. Coders were instructed to mark exactly what they heard or saw whether it was a Bugs Bunny cartoon for children or a portrayal of the life of Christ. Not surprisingly, humorous children's cartoons, where rabbits, pigs, and ducks were continually getting smashed about came out as horribly violent. If the quantitative interpretation of violence that some social scientists proposed were applied to the media, there obviously would be no further presentation of great works of art such as Shakespeare and even the presentation of the Bible would be questionable.

What soon became evident is that the meaning construction placed on a scene or particular action can vary a great deal (Newcomb, 1978). The portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus can be seen as sickeningly offensive or as a beautiful sign of enormous love depending on the meaning that the beholder places on this. …

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