Media consumption and the future of public connection
Funded under the ESRC/ AHRB cultures of consumption programme
October 2003 - March 2006
Research team: Nick Couldry, Sonia Livingstone, Tim Markham
The London School of Economics and Political Science
Media Consumption and the Future of Public Connection’ is a 30 month project which aims to provide a qualitatively rich insight into the ways in which people do, or do not, connect with a public world particularly through media. It seeks to address empirically some key assumptions in political science and media research. The question we’re interested in - the relationship between people’s lives as media consumers and the basis for democratic politics – has wide resonance in Britain and other countries too; as a result, we hope the project will stimulate further, comparative projects (we are currently working with colleagues in the USA Australia and the USA to this end).
This short document summarises the aims of the project and outlines its fieldwork strategy, discussing some related methodological issues.
Our research question is best explained, first of all, in terms of the two connected and widely made assumptions about democratic politics that we’re trying to test:
First that, in a democracy such as Britain, most people share an orientation to a public world where matters of common concern are, or at least should be, addressed (we call this orientation ‘public connection’); and
Second that this public connection is focussed principally on mediated versions of that public world (ie that ‘public connection’ is principally sustained by a convergence in what media people consume, by what we might call ‘shared media consumption’).
Most writers about politics make both these assumptions – although the two are detachable. Some believe the first without believing the second, because they argue that public connection is unlikely to served by people’s use of media (Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone thesis takes that position at least in relation to the effects of television). But generally writers assume both, but can we find evidence for both in how citizens think about themselves?
The first assumption is important because it underlies most models of democracy. For it is only on the basis of this assumption that the legitimacy of democratic political authority can be built: consent to political authority requires that people’s attention to the public world can be assumed, or at least that we can assume an orientation to the public world which from time to time can be expected to result in actual attention.
The word ‘public’ is difficult; it has a range of meanings (cf Weintraub and Kumar, 1997). When we talk of ‘public connection’, we mean ‘things or issues which are regarded as being of shared concern, rather than of purely private concern’, matters that in principle citizens need to discuss in a world of limited shared resources. Our hunch is that, however much people differ over what exactly counts as the public world and what doesn’t, most people can make sense of the difference between the public and the private, and that boundary remains meaningful in spite of many other levels of disagreement over the content and definition of politics.
Basic research strategy
This is why we feel we can base a research project on asking people what for them lies on the other side of the line from the things that they are regard as of only private concern. We are asking people: what makes up their public world? How are they connected to that world? And how are media involved, or not, in sustaining their connection to that world? These are the questions we want to explore – first by asking a small group of 30 people to write a diary for 3 months during 2004 that reflects on these questions, second by interviewing the diarists later in 2004, both individually and in groups, about that process of diary-writing, and finally by broadening out the themes from this necessarily small group to a nationwide survey (targeted at a sample of 1000 respondents) to be conducted in 2005.
The questions we are addressing are huge. In starting to answering them, we are, quite deliberately, starting small! There has been little, if any, research that has looked in detail at the quality of people’s sense of public connection and how it might, or might not, be linked to their media consumption;. Required now is research that listens closely to a range of people’s own reflections on these issues; it is only from there that we can start to generate larger hypotheses.
We are however drawing here on earlier pilot research done here at LSE 2 years ago (‘The Dispersed Citizen’ project funded by STICERD, 2001-2, conducted by Nick Couldry and Ana Langer). This study drew on questions posed to the Panel at the UK’s Mass-Observation Archive and also a small set of interviews in London. It suggested, first, a significant degree of alienation both from media and from contemporary British politics particularly among the quite elderly, mainly female Mass Observation sample, but, second, among those we interviewed in person, a sense of media as offering a form of ‘public connection’. That connection, however, took various different forms (for some, a more traditional form based on national press, TV, radio; for others, a newer form based on continuous online connection) with time (the constraints on people’s time) being a major factor in limiting those possibilities of connection. We say more below about how our current, larger project develops these thoughts in the context of the long tradition of media research.
The current context
There are two reasons why we think our research strategy is valuable now.
The first is the widespread concerns among academics and policymakers about the possible decline in political engagement: from falling voter turnout in various countries to a broader decline in interest, knowledge or even basic attention to politics, especially among young voters. This point was captured well, for example, in Madeleine Bunting’s article ‘Trust Hits the Buffers’ (Guardian 19 January 2004) which drew on David Marquand’s recent book Decline of the Public (2004). We must however be careful here because the signs are quite ambiguous. Decline of attention to politics in the traditional sense, need not mean lack of attention to politics in general, and certainly not necessarily apathy). Is people’s’sense of what politics should be, perhaps, changing? This is what some political scientists have argued - to explain the existence of huge mass demonstrations and global political networks at the time when trust in the formal political process appears to be declining (see essays by Russell Dalton and Sidney Tarrow in Pharr and Putnam (eds) Disaffected Democracies, 2000)?
Taking these complexities into account, we are trying (as we research people’s underlying sense of public connection) to abstract from a possible lack of consensus on a number of range of more specific, but vitally important issues: not just people’s political values and their cultural attachments, but also, more subtly, their differences over what are appropriate topics for political discussion, over the people they regard as legitimate political actors, and over the spaces or sites they feel are appropriate for political discussion and action. We’ve tried to design a diary format that is as open on these questions as possible (see further below).
There’s also a second reason why we think this research is urgent now – which relates to a change not in the political but in the media landscape. No longer can we assume an older media world where prime time television really was prime-time, providing a primary focus for national attention. There is the multiplication of media and media formats, the increasing interlinking of formats through digital convergence. Is the result likely to be an intensification of public connection, because of people’s greater ability to adapt their media consumption to suit their everyday habits and pressures? Or is the consequence of those shifts in media more likely to be the fragmentation of the public sphere into a mass of specialist ‘sphericules’ (Gitlin, 1998) that can no longer connect sufficiently to form the basis of a shared public world?
The Background of Audience Research
Discussions over shared culture, shared or fragmenting ideas of the public sphere, and over levels of participation in democratic life and apparently rising apathy are both widespread and important. This is one area where we see the project making its contribution. But there’s another debate central to the project, namely the changing and complexifying nature of the communication and information environment, and hence the changing significance of the audience, or rather audiences, for public life.
The media are framed in this project as potentially a key means by which people might share a sense of the public with others, and by which the public sphere might reach out to the people, inviting them; or alternatively by which media might close doors to the public world, excluding or distracting potential participants. There are currently lots of experiments in using media to reach out to people and bring them into the public sphere: e-democracy, online consultations, citizens juries, broadcast debates. Other experiments use the television or radio studio, the message board or chatroom, or even the text message, as a means of attempting to engage private citizens, especially younger citizens, in public discussion.
Such projects however face a hidden cultural barrier. For the media traditionally construct people in their ordinary lives not as publics necessarily, but as ‘audiences’. We ordinarily think of the media as part of our leisure, not our public life. The media are often seen as part of consumer society, as a means of escape from the real world rather than participation in it, as what we do after work not as work, as frivolous entertainment contrasted with the worthy duties of citizenship.
Traditionally, therefore, audiences are denigrated as trivial, passive, individualised, while publics are valued as active, critically engaged and politically significant. Since audiences are generally ascribed to the private domain, consider these common associations of public versus private, each of which valorises public over private: rational versus emotional, disinterested versus biased, participatory versus withdrawn, shared versus individualised, visible versus hidden. These oppositions each leave people’s uses of media as devalued, ignoring their potential for participation.
Moreover, when the media do get involved in the public sphere, people get worried – not that this will open up new opportunities for public connection, but that it will undermine the very possibility of ‘true’ public connection by undermining the public itself. As Kevin Barnhurst puts it, we worry about ‘politics commodified into beauty pageant cum talent show; journalists transmogrified into masters of ceremony, celebrity judges and measurers of the public will’ (Barnhurst, 1998: 203). These are real worries, especially as there are few if any places left untouched by the media. But there is a risk here of homogenising the media as if they speak with one voice, one effect, and collapsing citizens into audiences, thereby homogenising the public also. Such misinterpretations assume a normative perspective – that one central stage is to be valued and protected, and other activities are marginal, irrelevant. They are fuelled by the language of moral panics and narratives of decline.
So, while remaining aware of the important issues about alienation, apathy and disengagement in and from mediated public life, we need to take account of arguments that may point in the opposite direction.
First, the media are more complex than automatic pessimists assume. In traditional mass media, a range of quality broadcasting and print channels devote considerable efforts to addressing their audience as a public – thinking, informed, concerned, active – and this is not restricted to news genres. And in new media, we are only just beginning to explore the new possibilities for addressing, reaching out, inviting in, including the thoughts and activities of audiences. Such experimentation is generating some puzzling, ambiguous situations that resist simple categorisation into either public/citizen or audience/private; for example, the child in her bedroom chatting with kids across the globe; a lively TV talk show discussion of cultural norms of sexuality, that provides a rare insight into the diversity of experiences; a televised citizens jury on environmental issues, where the public quizzes the experts; a local radio station starting up to represent an ethnic minority, run by that minority; or websites that enables teens to recognise their rights, or disabled people to organise a protest.
Second, people are more complex than automatic pessimists assume. The story of the adoption and appropriation of new media – a story which stretches back over centuries, of course – is not simply one of acquiescent subjection to standardised, consumerist, normative media. Yes, many people (indeed all of us) may slump in front of the television some nights, exhausted from a demanding day – which is why our research seeks to contextualise experiences of public (dis)connection in people’s everyday lived reality - but those same people on other occasions may respond differently and more actively.
It is, more generally, a challenge to decide when audiences become publics: is it when they shout back at the news, discuss developments in a soap opera, text in feedback to a show, complain to the BBC, volunteer to take part in a talk show? Or must they get together, organise, influence a particular policy or political process, with measurable effects? We need to pay attention here not just to officially recognised forms of participation, but also the precursors of participation, the conditions which sustain or undermine public connection, and media’s role in them.
Methodology and detailed research strategy
The diary method
Our project emphasises the importance of understanding what people themselves define as matters of public, or shared, concern. In designing a research methodology, this throws up some very interesting questions.
We’re not simply presenting people with a series of questions and asking for their responses, but rather inviting people to determine the terms of reference of the research themselves, in ways that makes sense to them. There’s no shortage of research being done on how the public sphere has changed, how people’s engagement with politics is in decline or has been transformed, but what has been addressed much less is the subjective dimension of public connection. We need to understand more about people’s orientation to the public world (if that’s what it is), without which theories of democratic politics make little sense.
Our project will proceed in several stages, exploring different aspects of the questions we’re addressing. At the heart of the project is an innovative method involving participants keeping diaries over a period of three months, recording their thoughts and reflections about the public world, their connection to or disconnection from that world, and the role their use of the media plays in all of this.
There’s nothing new of course about using diaries in social research as such. But our questions to diarists will be substantially different from the questions in diary-based research. There’s a good deal of research which uses ‘diaries’ – often daily or even every few hours – about their pain levels, or mood., or specific forms of consumption. This often involves ticking boxes or giving short responses to specific questions, and can generate in a relatively short space of time a great deal of data, mainly quantitative. While this is perfectly valid, it doesn’t allow for people’s subjective reflections about whatever is being measured, how they understand the questions which are being addressed. More importantly, the frequent, highly structured, ‘minimal’ diary method, because of its extremely intensive and intrusive nature makes it difficult to track changes over a longer period of time. By contrast, we want to understand how people’s thinking about the public world develops as they reflect for an extended period on such questions.
Such broad research aims might suggest an approach at the polar opposite of the diaries just mentioned: narrative diaries, in which participants are more or less given free rein to relate anything and everything which might come to mind. There’s a strong ethos behind such diary methodologies - as developed within cultural studies and social anthropology - of not imposing a theoretical framework on respondents and letting them have their voice. While we agree with that basic aim – indeed it underlies our whole research - we don’t want the process of diary keeping to be completely unstructured and open-ended, because it is people’s varying focus on the public world and media, and the connections between the two, that we want to understand. We want to know what happens when people are asked to think about such questions over a three month period of diary production.
We’ve therefore tried to strike a very careful balance in designing our diary between encouraging the free flow of ideas, while maintaining a focus on issues of media consumption and public connection. We try not to direct the diarists’ reflections, but we do give prompts and suggest starting points.
Our first contact with diarists, after they have been recruited through market researchers, takes the form of a fairly long interview. The purpose of this is twofold. First it allows us to record participants’ initial thoughts on the main questions of the project, giving us a starting point, a general idea of their views, and a possible point of comparison further down the line, enabling us to collate socioeconomic details, profiles of media access/ consumption and basic attitudes to the public world. Second, this is where we start participants thinking in depth about the project’s key issues, explaining what’s expected of them and getting them interested – again, this has meant striking a careful balance when designing the interview protocols: while we want to hear interviewees’ opinions, we want the interview to raise more questions for them than it answers.
As for the diary itself, we decided against having a series of questions to be answered, or headings under which diary entries were to be divided. We opted instead for a cover letter which reminds diarists of the questions we’re addressing and would like them to reflect upon, along with diary pages which are blank except for the project’s title and which are to be submitted weekly. We feel this combination will provide the right mix of prompting or direction and open-endedness.
In choosing a diary method, we are well aware that this choice may have different implications for different respondents. There may, for example, be gender-related or other issues that affect whether it seems an appropriate or natural form of self-expression for different people (see Bird, 2003).
We have therefore given diarists a choice of media in which to record their thoughts – not just a traditional written diary, but also email, phone message or voice recorder, any of which can be supplemented by press cuttings or whatever else the diarist wishes to send in. While the diary process is anchored around the weekly written diary, we hope this flexibility will encourage diarists to develop and record their ideas in as unfettered a way as possible. It’s important to prevent the diary from coming to resemble a homework assignment, or an self-administered opinion survey.
We recognise that three months, while essential to produce longitudinal data, is a long time as far as diary methodology goes. We therefore are keeping in touch with diarists through the period, with comments or suggestions for expansion, which are designed to be as non-judgmental as possible.
Our diarists have been recruited through the invaluable work of our market research company, The Field Department, and on the basis of an incentive payment. We have aimed for an even spread of diarists across genders, age range (18-30, 30-50, 50+) and levels of media access.
Particularly important, we recruited across a series of six regions, chosen to undermine any metropolitan bias linked to the research team’s location in London: in addition to one inner city and one suburban region in London, we have recruited from Manchester suburbs, Leeds, inner city Southampton, and rural Leicestershire. The detailed choice of areas has also been designed to ensure a broad mix of socioeconomic categories.
Later stages of the project
The diary phase will run until early summer 2004, to be followed by final individual interviews with the diarists and a series of focus groups in which they can meet other diarists and develop their thoughts on the project further. Analysis of the data collected in the diary phase, interviews and focus groups will proceed until early next year.
Following this will be a nationwide survey in which a large amount of more quantitative data will be collected and analysed, and the results compared with those of the first phase of the project. This will really allow us to judge the significance of what we find in the diary phase, whether it stands up against the survey data – and also the extent to which the conclusions and implications of the diary phase go beyond standard survey analysis – and we plan to go public with the results in early 2006.
Links to the Wider Research Community and Potential Conclusions
As already mentioned, we believe this research project has potentially wide relevant both within the UK and in other countries because it addresses in a qualitatively rich way a question that underlies contemporary concerns with the changing nature of democratic politics. We held a seminar on 3 February 2004 (just before our fieldwork began) with a small group of interested policymakers, media practitioners and researchers. In 2005 once our data is substantially complete, we will issue an interim report to interested parties and hold larger-scale briefing meetings. Interim conclusions will also be posted on our website.
To complete this brief outline of where our research is aimed, it is perhaps, even at this early stage, worth mentioning some conclusions that even now we might anticipate and which would be interesting outcomes of the research.
We are ready to find, for example, that
A number of people lack any sense of public connection (with some of them wanting things otherwise, and others wanting things to remain that way)
that, while everyone we ask reports a sense of public connection, it is focussed on a range of separate public worlds which may be exclusive of each other, without any common language or focus shared between them ; or
that there are a number of people for whom media consumption is less important than other contexts (people for whom ‘public connection’ is sustained through local groups, meeting face-to-face, and in a way not necessarily reflected in media narratives)
Whether we’ll end up challenging fundamentally the two assumptions that we started out to investigate – about public connection and its basis in shared media consumption - we can’t yet tell, but in any case we hope to generate a much better sense of how those assumptions are sustained, if they are, in people’s everyday lives.
Barnhurst, K. (1998) ‘Politics in the fine meshes: young citizens, power and media’, Media Culture & Society, 20(2): 201-218
Bird, E. (2003) The Audience in Everyday Life. London: Routledge.
Gitlin, T. (1998) ‘Public Sphere or Public Sphericules?’ in T. Liebes and J. Curran (eds) Media, Ritual and Identity. London: Routledge.
Marquand, D. (2004) The Decline of the Public. Cambridge: Polity.
Pharr, S. and Putnam, R. (eds) (2000) Disaffected Democracies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Weintraub, J. and Kumar, K. (eds) (1997) Public and Private in Thought and Practice. Chicago: Chicago University Press.