In “That’s Interesting! Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology” Murray Davis outlines a number of variations on a single theme: the reversal of established expectations constitutes the basis for an “interesting” finding. Although Davis adequately details of why a particular publication or study may hold interest for an audience, we must be careful not to equate interest with value (or, as Davis notes, with accuracy).
Additionally, we might note how Davis’ construction of binaries may struggle to find resonance is a post-modern world. While the core of Davis’ argument may continue to hold true, the language may benefit from a slight alteration: instead of “X” versus “non-X” we may consider how interesting studies may contrast “always X” and “not always X.” For example, we might point to interesting developments in audience studies that argue against the passive nature of consumers. Although we see the emergence of agency and active audience, this phenomenon exists alongside passive viewing suggesting that our dominant assumptions about the audience need to be refined but also that an either/or binary must give way to a model that incorporates a both/and stance.
However, regardless of minor issues, we can apply Davis’ notion to a host of current theories in order to assess the relative level of interest that they may hold. Media theories, for example, may be considered “interesting” as they often unpack and denaturalize adopted or learned practices. The great potential for theories of mass media or media and culture to be considered “interesting” lies in their ability to challenge the simplicity of the everyday (e.g., watching television, reading a newspaper, or browsing the Internet), arguing that media is both impacted and consumed in incredibly complex ecologies. For example, we readily see that theory like that of the knowledge gap lends itself to the conclusion that the same media artifact can hold vastly different amounts of information for various populations (with extensions of this to media literacy) and, from there, it is a short leap to the notion that various groups may respond to, or be affected by, media in different manners.
The realm of media also invokes questions about the ways in which communication is affected by information and communication technology. Ranging from issues of presence to uses and gratifications and computer mediated communication, this cluster of theories attempts to investigate the ways in which communication aided by technology may in fact be a more complex process than originally thought. Put another way, these theories question the assumptions made around the design and use of communication technologies challenging the notion that the protocols surrounding technology adoption and implementation are in any way natural.
Similar to media, of which the average person typically has an intuitive or common sense understanding, we can consider how theories of persuasion and advertising may be deemed “interesting” as they cause us to reconsider something that we rarely contemplate because it is ever-present and, on some level, simply assumed to be part of life. Alternatively, we see that persuasion theory can also be interesting as it deflates the sensationalism of catch phrases like “subliminal advertising” and explores how the process of priming actually works. This field has also seen a minor resurgence after the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink with regard to the process of decision making for we have been exposed to the idea that our choices may not be entirely up to us (and who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory?).
Ultimately, although we see that Davis provides one method for determining whether a project is “interesting,” we must also remember that not everything that is of interest is also significant. Using novelty as a guide may give us a place to start our investigation but we must also think carefully about the import of the cultural assumptions that surround our questions. As scholars, we must also challenge ourselves and our work to go beyond a threshold of “interesting” and be relevant and meaningful.
In contrast to some of the material that we read previously (broadly speaking to the Horkheimer and Adorno position) “The Spiral of Science” points to other factors in conformity—this is something that we can do to ourselves (for a particular reason) and not always something that is necessarily imposed upon us by media.
Invoking the authority/conformity studies of Milgram and Asch, Noelle-Neumann argues for a process that is more complex than might have originally been thought. Although the situation posed by Asch in his laboratory might not seem incredibly relevant to everyday activities, one might readily extrapolate the idea that social cohesion offered benefits to humans that transcended the value of being “right.” (Which also brings up the notion of objective/subjective truth because in the case of Asch’s experiment the group consensus did form a kind of localized truth and the absolute truth would be somewhat irrelevant if the group chose to act based on relative truth.) Expanded upon in the Glynn et al. chapter on social reality, I find that the space bounded by individuals’ perceptions of their environments and each other to be quite interesting.
The potential danger of mass media, then, is that it can amplify the effects that we demonstrate in society (it’s not solely about the tech) as we attempt to control or manipulate public opinion. Mass media gives people the ability to make their message more visible, which in turn factors into the spiraling effect noted by Noelle-Neumann. And although Christopher Simpson argues that Noelle-Neumann’s writings might be biased, his work also speaks to the ways in which socio-cultural factors influence the social sciences, even when they are not explicitly acknowledged.
But perhaps the most interesting concept in this week’s readings was, for me, the notion of public opinion stemming from references groups—although the idea that we define a sense of self in relationship to others (who are either similar to or different from us) does not seem incredibly revolutionary, I wonder about how such a position might inform our understanding of public opinion. If public opinion represents a coalescing of individuals, does it necessarily do so in contrast to a minority opinion (even if such a position isn’t articulated)? Expressed another way, when we align ourselves with a dominant position in public opinion, are we taking a stand with the majority or against the minority (or both)? Is to be one of us necessarily to be against one of them? And which way of configuring your message is most effective (allowing, of course, that this answer might change depending on the topic)?