Going Beyond the Academy: Translating Communication Research for the Public and Decision-Makers
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
--Guest post by Jamie Schleser, American University doctoral student.
For those that don’t spend their days toiling away in the often peculiar atmosphere of institutions of higher learning, the how and why of research is sometimes a bit of a mystery. In the weeks and months after I decided to push all my chips to the center of the table and go all-in on pursuing my Ph.D. in Communication, I often found myself sitting across the table explaining my decision to friends. Even some of the most hardcore overachievers that I had grown up with had difficulty understanding my reasoning. To a large extent, I think the disconnect stems from their inability to imagine how the complex nature of academic research and theory might illuminate societal problems and daily life.
This question of how research impacts the lived experience of us all is one that surfaces within the academy walls as often as it does outside. In the field of communication research, this notion of applicability is made particularly salient by the centrality of communication activity to human existence. Whether face-to-face or via social media, it’s difficult to imagine a day going by without talking to another person—unless you’ve taken up residence in some isolated shack somewhere and unplugged from the world, but then you’re probably not reading this blog post.
Rapidly, it’s becoming equally hard for most of us to imagine life without our mobiles phones, without the ability to search Google for the answer to any question that pops into our head, or without being able to idle away hours of productivity watching commercial programming and/or user-generated videos online. In short, everyone has first-hand experience with communication which makes us all naturally inquisitive about its mechanisms and concerned about its consequences to some extent.
Much debate occurs among communication scholars about if and how we should respond to this public interest in our field of study. As in any discipline, there are proponents of research for knowledge sake. These lovers of theory occupy themselves with unpacking enormously complex concepts that underwrite communication as an academic discipline but don’t always translate well to the lived experience of human interaction. Others issue a call to fellow academics to lift research beyond the university campus, advocating a model of applied communication research. At its most elemental, applied research is scholarship that has very real, practical implications for how we communicate with each other every day.
Public Scholarship and Applied Communication Research
Nearly two decades ago, Ellen Wartella, a past president of the International Communication Association, identified the growing public interest in communication issues in a speech before ICA members. She advocated a model of communication research that empowers the general public. In order to achieve this goal of public scholarship and service, she prescribed three things that communication research must do: 1) address contemporary public concerns; 2) enter into the fray of public policymaking; and 3) establish a plan for educating future generations in the discipline and by promoting media literacy—a general understanding of the mechanisms of media—among those outside the field.
By focusing on the issues that are most relevant to people, using what we have learned through research to shape the laws that govern how we communicate, creating an informed public, and promoting rigorous scholarship in the field, Wartella argued that the field of communication research could finally achieve the prominence it so richly deserves.
Gary Kreps and colleagues address similar themes in their assessment of applied communication research. They point to the importance of choosing “appropriate topics” for investigation. Appropriateness, in this case, is defined by significance—the weightiness of the issue—and the likelihood that enhanced knowledge will lead to concrete applications for mundane communication.
They place special emphasis on the ability of applied communication research to solve specific social problems, whether that lies in identifying the most effective means for communicating information about diseases to at-risk populations or conveying the potential effects of watching violent television programming so viewers can make an informed decision before tuning in. In addition to this pragmatic value, Kreps and colleagues assign theoretical and disciplinary value to the rigorous pursuit of applied communication research. They astutely point out that theory-building (often exclusively associated with “basic” research) cannot exist in a vacuum and neither can applied research.
Applied research acts as a testing ground for theory, while theoretical conception acts as the starting point for asking questions with practical implications. They go further by suggesting that it is in the interest of all communication researchers to nurture this symbiotic relationship in order to prove the essentiality of the discipline among other academic units as well as in the public consciousness.
In a separate article, Sandra Petronio extends the idea of applied research as an agent of measurable social change even further, imbuing it with a persuasive function through the act of translation. She describes translation as a multi-step process that begins with using theory to solve real-world problems through research. The researcher must then determine how to communicate that information to the populations that can most benefit from it and —taking it one step further than Wartella and Kreps et al—help to implement the changes suggested by the research.
Petronio suggests various strategies for accessing those target populations, including interventions, training individuals and organizations that work with at-risk populations, distributing information through popular channels like magazines and news outlets, and providing instruction via the classroom and community workshops. Only by extending the reach of applied communication research far beyond the library and laboratory doors does translation fully occur. Petronio also points out that this direct contact has the added value of convincing the general public of the value of communication research.
As a scholar, these goals and prescriptions for successful applied communication research are difficult for me to argue with. Like the question of the tree falling in the forest, I think it is incredibly valuable to occasionally ask ourselves what our scholarship, labor and work means. If no one ever reads about it outside of our tiny sub-field and no one ever benefits from what we learn, does it exist? Even basic researchers should aspire to form theories that are relevant to contemporary communications issues, if only to inspire applied research that will translate their ideas into knowledge that will help the public understand the importance of communication and shape its development as we move further into an increasingly digitized future.
--Guest post by Jamie Schleser, a doctoral student at American University’s School of Communication. Read other posts by AU doctoral students and find out more about the doctoral program in Communication at American University.
Kreps, G. L., Frey, L.R., & O’Hair, D. (1991). Applied communication research: Scholarship that can make a difference. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 19(1-2), 71-87.
Petronio, S. (1999). “Translating scholarship into practice”: An alternative metaphor. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 27(2), 87-91. [PDF]
Wartella, E. (1994) Challenge to the Profession. Communication Education, 43(1), 54-62.
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