The comparative method as a breaching experiment

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Abstract

Comparative studies have remained an exception in qualitative reception and audience studies (Jensen, 1998b), although recent years have witnessed ambitious projects (e.g. Barker & Mathijs, 2008) and increased cross-national research collaborations. This paper will present the design of an empirical comparative study of the cultural, cognitive and linguistic determinants of news comprehension and a discussion of the challenges, issues and benefits found in engaging with a comparative methodology in the context of reception and discourse analyses. The research project on which this paper is based sought to understand the processes by which mediated discourse such as news is comprehended by its audience (Mathieu, 2009). The empirical study consisted in a cross-cultural comparison of the reading processes between Danes and Canadians over a set of news texts from both countries. In this ‘qualitative experiment’, the comparison between cultures and between news texts created conditions of inquiry for the study of cases constructed through a cognitive interview. Leaving aside the construction of these qualitative cases, the paper will focus on the use of the comparative method as the cornerstone for the empirical study. My interest in the comparative method is analytical, i.e. how the method facilitates, supports and validates the analysis of culture and the interpretation of cultural phenomena such as the reception of news. The paper argues for the usefulness of the comparative method for cultural analysis and will do so by presenting how the method proved crucial a) to an integration between the traditions of reception analysis and experimental cognitive psychology, as it allowed combining rationales that traditionally were mutually exclusive; b) to rethink old debates and complicities in research, concerning for example the manipulation versus ‘naturality’ of data or the role of language, cognition and context in the study of meaning; and especially c) to articulate the study of culture as a “breaching experiment” (Garfinkel, 1967) allowing fine-grained, empirically-driven analysis of the implicit cultural dimension of news comprehension. With respect to the third point (c), the reliance on the comparative method appeared valuable in three ways. 1) The cross-cultural comparison allowed to ‘make culture visible’ in the empirical study. The rationale of having a group (e.g. Danes) reading a foreign text (e.g. Canadian news) represented a similar strategy to a “breaching experiment” that creates a disruptive situation to render explicit or abnormal what is ordinarily normal and implicit. 2) Through using one group as a lens to analyse the other group, the comparative method supported the interpretation of a cultural phenomenon. 3) The method provided empirical borders to an analysis of culture, hence preventing such analysis to take a life of its own. Consequently, the comparative method was instrumental in articulating, delimitating and validating culture as an empirical category of analysis in qualitative reception studies.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date22 Jun 2013
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jun 2013
EventBridging the Quantitative-Qualitative Divide in Comparative Communication Research: Heading towards Qualitative Comparative Analysis - Hilton Metropole London Hotel, London, United Kingdom
Duration: 22 Jun 201322 Jun 2013
https://www.icahdq.org/conf/2013/confdescriptions.asp

Conference

ConferenceBridging the Quantitative-Qualitative Divide in Comparative Communication Research
LocationHilton Metropole London Hotel
CountryUnited Kingdom
CityLondon
Period22/06/201322/06/2013
OtherPost Conference
Internet address

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