Monday, 13 March 2017

Historical method practiced in Mass Media Research

How is historical method practiced in mass media research? Discuss by citing previous historical studies in mass media.


Historical Research in Media
Historical method practiced in Mass Media Research

More than 60 years ago, American historical Carl Becker made two critical points about historical research. The first was his insistence that historical writing must be useful; it must have some application to better our understanding of our world. The second was that historical writing invariably reflected the need of those who wrote it (cited in Nord, 1998). These observations probably are as true today as they were then, and they are as relevant to our profession as they are too many others. Social work as well as sister disciplines as such as economics, political science, religious studies, sociology and theology, has widely incorporated historical research into its knowledge base. Historians are well aware of the inevitability of competing visions of the past, and the perennial evolution of these interpretations.

Historical Research:

Historical research is the process of systematically examining past events to give an account; may involve interpretation to recapture the nuances, personalities and ideas that influenced these events; to communicate an understanding of past events. It draws conclusions about the past. Historical Research refers to the collection and analysis of secondary data with an aim to determine past events and interpret them in relation to the social attitudes and the community structure at hand. Historical literature, oral histories and traditions are used to gather historical research.

A method that seeks to make sense of the past through the disciplined and systematic analysis of the traces it leaves behind. Such trace may be of much different kind, ranging from everyday ephemera, art effects and visual images, to old building, archaeological sites or entire landscapes. The most widely used historical traces, however, are written documents, whether of publics or private origin. Historical analysis is commonly used in social research as in introductory strategy for establishing a context or background against which a substantive contemporary study may be set. In this more substantial form, historical analysis is often combined with other methods to engage social research questions.

The use of historical data poses several broad questions: 

1. Are the data appropriate to the theoretical question being posed?
2. How these data were originally collected, or what meaning were embedded in them at the time of collection?

Scoops of information in historical research:

Historical research is properly carried out with the help of both written records and physical remains, primary sources and secondary sources.

Examples of primary sources:

  • Diaries, journals, letters, interviews, speeches, memos, manuscripts and other first-person accounts
  • Memoirs and autobiographies
  • Official records such as government publications, census data, court reports, police records
  • Newspaper and magazine articles, viewed as a whole, during the time of the event
  • Photographs, paintings, film and television programs, audio recordings which document an event
  • Research such as opinion polls which document attitudes and thought during the time of an event
  • Artifacts such as objects, tools, clothing, etc. of the time period or event

Secondary sources are scholarly books or articles that are based on primary source data and analyze, critique, report, summarize, interpret, or restructure that data. They can also be based on a reading of other secondary sources or a combination of primary source data and secondary sources.

Examples of secondary sources:

  • Reference books such as encyclopedias, handbooks, etc.
  • Reviews
  • Textbooks
  • Most scholarly books
  • Most magazine and journal articles

Methodology of Historical Research:

Generally, historical research methodology is neither highly established nor consistent. An ideal historical research methodology should be holistic, interpretative and contextual. 

The general historical research methodology consists of four general steps:

  • Identification of research problem.
  • Collection and evaluation of source material
  • Synthesis of sources material information
  • Analysis, interpretation and conclusions

Historical studies in Mass Media Research:

The macro-history of communication is the most widely known of the three types of communication history. It considers the relationship of the media to human evolution and asks the questions: how does the history of communication illuminate human nature? It has been very influential in legitimating the field of communication itself as an area of study. The key figures here are the Canadian thinkers Haroid Innis (1951) and Marshall McLuhan (1962; 1964).

Michael McGerr’s (1986) study of the transformation of American political campaigning in the late nineteenth century is an exemplary work in two respects: first, it examines the relationship of a medium to the changing constitution of a field of human experience-politics; second it refuses to confine its understanding of “medium” to the usual trio of oral, written, and electronic media. The communication medium McGerr is interested in the campaign- part oral and participatory ritual, part printed exhortation, par party-organizes mass spectacle. (Interestingly, it is a medium that symbolically characteristics American culture as a whole: Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg’s first experience in the USA as he disembarks in San Francisco is to be jostled by people in the streets for a campaign rallu.) McGerr’s intent is “to explain why politics no longer excites many American.” He argues that the USA had a very lively political life in the mid-nineteenth century, characterized by a vividly and sometimes viciously partisan press, powerful allergies of citizens participated.

While other have tried to explain the declaim in voter turnout and political involvement in the USA after the 1890s, McGerr is original in emphasizing how a new ideology of political elites, concerning what kind of communication and electoral campaign should use, engendered new campaign practices. McGerr’s work is instructive for communication studies to several grounds. First, McGerr offers historical perspective that forces a more complex understanding of contemporary life than we sometimes gets demonstrating for instance, that the decline of voter participation in the USA did not begin with television and TV entered campaigning. Second McGerr’s examination of political communication is free from the instructional narrowness of much media history. That is while he takes the press to be vital actor in the story he tells, the chief agents in his drama are the leaders of political party organizations.

Habermass (1989) traces the rise of the “bourgeois public sphere” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and its decline from the mid-nineteenth century on. In the earlier period, the bourgeois attack on feudal society and absolutist state power was fueled by a belief in principles of rational public discussion and freedom of speech. In the new bourgeois order, newspaper and public discussion carried in coffeehouse and elsewhere established a public sphere, that is, a physical and discursive space between the state and its agencies, on the one side, and private enterprise and family life, on the other.

The historical evidence in support of the Habermas views is all too scanty: “So far, historians using the Habermas using the Hbermas model usually talk about the public of journalism without ever actually coming into contact with it”
Even so, Habermas offers communication history a persuasive rationale. It is too little rationale to study communication institutions for their own sake-that is a kind of antiquarian motive; and it may be too much to study communication history as the central constitutive feature of human nature.


There is plenty of room for room for historical research mere theoretically informed and more linked to other features of history- history proper communication must be analysed with references to the organization and social uses of technologies in specific historical setting; the technologies themselves must be seen as social and cultural practices. As always this is as true from the side of reception as of production.