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Theories, data, and communication research

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In Communication, as well as many other disciplines, it is common to make distinctions between interpretive and empirical research. One argument for these distinctions is a belief that a theory-data interaction invalidates empirical research. This view holds that because objectivity is impossible, those studying social phenomena should adopt phenomenological positions and explore individualistic accounts of reality. Though many speak of a theory-data interaction as if it were a general principle, actually there are many different types of interactions between theories and data. Whether or not these interactions result in invalid observations, however, is less clear. Because specific evidence of distorted data leading to incorrect theories has not been cited by interpretive thinkers, it is more accurate to say that research data have been accurately reported despite this interaction. The ubiquity of the theory-data interaction, together with the acknowledgment of objectivity in the reporting of data has a number of implications for communication study. One is that empirical researchers need to acknowledge subjective involvement in their research, rather than maintaining a pose of objectivity in theory as well as method. Because theory-data interactions have been cited as a foundational issue in paradigmatic thought, it might well be time to rethink paradigmatic distinctions in the search of broader and more useful research. As Toulmin (2001) put it, we might well profit from a broader mode of expression.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: December 1, 2003


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